"I, TONYA" Movie Review
Is “I, Tonya” the best film of 2017? That is your decision to make upon viewing this biographical comedy film that tells the life story of figure skater Tonya Harding and the infamous scandal that rocked the world. With an intense strike of drama and a dose of satire, this film breaks down a lot of walls that were up when the “incident” in 1994 happened and gives us an entirely new perspective of Harding’s account using humor but also emotional elements that make this film a must see!
“Why can’t it just be about the skating?” That is the question Tonya asks in one scene and it’s reflected throughout the film in interviews and flashbacks as Tonya, now in her 40’s and living a life of seclusion tries to deflect from a controversial account and tells her life story. As one judge points out to her, “You’re representing our country. We need to see a wholesome American family. And you refuse to play along.”
But we see in this film that it’s not that Tonya refused to play along with the stigma of perfection that goes into the figure skating world. She simply never learned how to. In a sport where glamour and being pristine weighs heavily on the public’s opinion of you, Tonya didn’t know how to adapt. Something that pulled me right into this movie was that we get to see all the different phases of Tonya Harding’s life. We see a young girl described as a “soft 4” by her domineering chain-smoking mother being thrust into the spotlight for her intriguing skating abilities. We then see a pre-teen Tonya who shoots rabbits and makes tawdry fur coats out of them, thinking they make her look glamorous. As Tonya gets older and her skating abilities only get better, she meets the man who will have the biggest impact on her life, at first for the best, and in the end, for the worst, Jeff Gillooly.
Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan, who plays Harding’s abusive husband, Jeff Gillooly, who played a major role in the assault on Nancy Kerrigan.
Tonya lives a poor life style. She goes through multiple fathers and is forced to take physical and emotional abuse from the ultimate stage mom, played brilliantly by Allison Janney. In one scene, a young Tonya literally pees herself while figure skating because her mother, LaVona will not let her leave the rink. Looking down on her child who is obviously embarrassed, LaVona simply replies, “Skate wet.”
Mckenna Grace as a young Tonya Harding.
Allison Janney’s portrayal of Tonya Harding’s mother is so harsh and yet you can’t help but wait in anticipation of what is going to come out of her mouth next. Somewhere behind the glasses, the cigarettes and that intensive glare, there is a shred of wisdom seeping through this tumultuous mother-daughter relationship. Even when LaVona’s character fades about halfway through the film, we see her randomly show up in an interview clip saying, “Well my storyline is disappearing right now. What the fuck.”
Allison Janney as LaVona.
Tonya’s greatest asset is her talent. And through the abuse she suffers from her mother and husband, she finds a way to surpass all of that and become the first American woman to complete a triple axel jump. One of the highlights of the film is this scene for in those few seconds, we see Tonya complete what no other figure skater could do and in slow motion, the look on Margot Robbie’s face reflects disbelief and excitement. As a viewer, you are right there cheering with her as her face, often battered and bruised, now angelic lights up the screen. Then, suddenly, just as the excitement has reached its ultimate high, we fast forward to a now older and teary-eyed Tonya Harding looking away from the camera as she says, “I’m sorry. Nobody ever asks me about this anymore.”
This is brilliant on the filmmaker’s part. In an odd way, "I, Tonya" is somewhat of a Cinderella story. Here is girl who grew up with nothing except the ability to ice skate. She enters this world of beauty and experiences fame. But then the clock strikes midnight and everything around her completely evaporates and she doesn’t even get a chance to make an excuse for herself because her mother is already pushing her and throwing knives (literally) at her to reassemble the mess she has made. And when Margot Robbie is retelling Tonya’s story of how she accomplished the triple axel jump and gets emotional in the process, it shows just how unimportant something so meaningful can be to people once they have their minds made up about you. The “incident” is what people now know her for, not the triple axel and we see that it breaks Tonya's heart.
Another thing I commend Craig Gillespie, the film’s director on is the use of storytelling through amazing edits. The use of title cards for specific events in Tonya’s career is very similar to that of Martin Scorsese’s use of title cards in 1980’s “Raging Bull.” There are also many fourth wall breaks in the film that add to the vitality of the script and make it more refreshing and wry. To add to the film’s sense of raw irony, in one particular scene, Tonya’s ex-husband Jeff is looking at his television, and the news of O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson being murdered is playing on the screen, thus beginning a whole new media firestorm and as Jeff looks out his window, he sees the last of the news vans leaving. Their story is over and another one is just beginning. That is media. And this film does more than set the record straight, it singles out the ones behind the cameras who are just hungry for a story and once they get their fill, soon their stomachs start growling again.
I’ve briefly shared some great moments in the film but haven’t said much about the woman behind them. Margot Robbie, who also acted as producer of this film pulls out a performance worthy of every award possible. While I can’t say she looks like Tonya Harding, she embodies the public’s perception of Tonya perfectly. We see a frizzy-haired girl with braces who doesn’t come from a typical American family develop into a woman who through all directional guidance, refuses to be a life-sized Barbie Doll to please the judges. Robbie’s controlled mix of humor and desolation is the acting counterpart of Tonya Harding when she landed the triple axel jump – complete discipline and focus.
Towards the end of the film, as the controversy of Tonya’s supposed involvement in Kerrigan’s assault builds up, we are taken to Lillehammer at the 1994 Winter Olympics. In the locker room, we see Tonya, seated in a chair, looking at her reflection, rouge on her cheeks. As she applies makeup to her face, she begins to cry. Tears start rolling down her cheeks. Then suddenly, still looking at her reflection, she smiles, a big grin, lipstick on her teeth. For me, this IS Tonya Harding. A woman who, through all the psychological bullying from her mother, the fists of her husband that struck her, and the millions of people who felt betrayed, was never the one thing everyone expected her to be. Perfect.
“I, Tonya” is, for me, the BEST film of 2017. I don’t view it as a comedy, I don’t view it as a drama, and I certainly don’t see it as a movie about figure skating. I view it as the truth, told in a way that will affect every person who sees it differently.