There’s something great about seeing a biopic that leans into the irony and allows supposed facts to contradict themselves. I, Tonya focuses on the life of the infamous American figure skater Tonya Harding, and it does a fine job of being a sort of warts and all look at a controversial figure without shying away from the inherent dark comedy found in her story. The idea of watching the story of an underdog who ends up going in the exact opposite direction of a typical sports hero feels like a unique concept and this film does well with that setup. Additionally, there are a few great performances here that go a long way in making a very likable film, despite how terrible some of these people are.
The people in question are Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), her now ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and Tonya’s mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). Others enter in and out of the story as well, but we are primarily watching the rise and fall of Tanya. We see her troubled upbringing, the physical abuse she suffered and what transpired during her time as a competing figure skater.
Director Craig Gillespie, a strange sort of journeyman filmmaker responsible for movies such as Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night and The Finest Hours, has assembled I, Tonya as a confessional that jumps around in time to recall what happened from multiple perspectives. However Steven Rogers’ blacklisted script was initially constructed, the results find a way of creating a compelling narrative that often talks over itself.
The characters speak to the same situations in different ways frequently, and the film is happy to depict all versions of the story at once. Characters even break the fourth wall at times to note how things didn’t happen this way, despite seeing the film delight in showing it. It’s easy to reference Scorsese as a key influence, but I wouldn’t overlook another comedic gem, 24 Hour Party People, either.
It all helps to build a wild narrative that doesn’t undercut the nature of the people involved. Tonya is a self-proclaimed redneck and knowing the actual Harding served as a consultant on the film only adds to the oddity of how matter-of-fact the surprising amount of violence is. I had an idea of who Tonya was going in, and while that didn’t change coming out, there is a level of added context that makes the film all the more effective. I, Tonya is not about glamorizing the actions taken by her and others, nor is it a redemptive story of a misunderstood celebrity. It’s a critique of those who attempt to achieve something and make bad decisions in how to get there.
Additionally, the film gets a good amount of mileage about the price of fame and the pressure that puts on someone. I wish I, Tonya would have delved further into this angle, as I could only take so much of Gilooly and his idiot friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) being low-rent Coen Bros. style idiots, but there was a neat thread involving the press’ effect on an insane situation. The effect one white American Olympic participant had on another may not be as substantial a story to take up the 24-hour news cycle as the issue of systemic racism highlighted by the Rodney King beating and the O.J. Simpson trial, which happened before and after the main events of this film, but it works to sell one of the film’s notable points.
The biggest draw, however, is the performances. This is a hilarious movie for all the profane language and how it factors into a rather unconventional biopic and the actors run with that. Robbie is excellent here, putting together a memorable turn as Tonya. It’s the sort of performance that finds an actor putting themselves out there and not being concerned with vanity, as Robbie takes beatings from her mother and Jeff while dishing out her brand of violence as well. There are also quiet moments that allow for a focus on Tonya’s face as she gathers herself in an attempt to make her next move or slowly realize how things are falling apart.
Other characters do fine as well. Stan makes for a deplorable goof as Jeff, never making his violent outbursts feel like a joke, yet holding onto a sense of silliness that keeps you wanting to watch him for the most part. Julianne Nicholson plays Diane Rawlinson, Tonya’s longtime trainer, who puts up with a lot. It’s the sort of role that seems innocuous but is still very valuable to have in a film featuring so many loons.
The best supporting performance and one of the best roles of the year comes from Janney as Tonya’s mother. This film does not attempt to say LaVona was a good person and we see how all of her abuse shaped her daughter to become the person she is. Even if much of it was to nurture the natural skating talent Tonya had (she was one of the only skaters in the world to consistently complete triple axels), none of this happened without causing severe damage. Yet, as horrible as Lavona is, Janney makes her such a compelling character to watch. Her actions are wrong but handled in such a way that provokes lots of laughter.
Shortcomings of the film are tricky to assess, as they play into the narrative. There are a lot of dumb actions taken by characters that reflect the reality of what took place. The look of the film is only so impressive, but with the limits of portraying elaborate skate scenes that don’t feel modified by visual effects, it kind of suits the story of a character who didn’t get by easy. I wish there were more for Bobby Cannavale’s Hard Copy producer character to do, but as I mentioned, the film only goes so far to address the tabloid influence on these events.
I, Tonya makes a good case for biopics that don’t need to focus on influential figures. Even labeling Tonya as an “anti-hero” feels like a bit much, but it doesn’t mean the film is not effective. It’s a well-assembled story that is frequently funny and every bit as biting as it can be. I wish some of the underlying themes popped up a bit more, but the film does a lot for itself thanks to its structure. It doesn’t get a perfect score, but Tonya Harding is rather familiar with settling for lower.