‘I, Tonya’ carves out a unique place in the biopic genre

I, Tonya (2017)

Directed by Craig Gillespie

“I was loved for a minute, then I was hated…now it’s just a punchline.” Screenwriter Steven Rogers (“Stepmom”) conducted hours of interviews with Tonya Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, before penning “I, Tonya,” the comprehensive Harding biopic that took the Toronto International Film Festival by storm. By recreating those interviews with the film’s stars, Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan, “I. Tonya” allows audiences to see a side of Harding (now a home repairwoman in Oregon, completely off the radar) that word-of-mouth retellings of “the incident” don’t allow for. “The incident,” of course, refers to the attack on former figure skating star Nancy Kerrigan, an attack planned with help from, among others, Gillooly. The fallout plays as the climax of the narrative, but this mostly empathetic biopic is compelling from start to finish.

“I, Tonya” frames Harding’s (first played by Mckenna Grace, the standout young star from “Gifted,” and then by Robbie) life as tough from the start. After her parents divorced, she was raised by her nasty, pack-a-day-smoking mother, LaVona (Allison Janney). Gillooly (Stan), whom she met when she was 15 years old, was her first love. He was kind at first, but quickly became emotionally and physically violent. As if her personal troubles weren’t enough, Harding realized at an early age that the world of professional figure skating was full of pretty, proper young girls—very different than Harding, who enjoyed fixing cars and hunting small game with her dad. Whether or not you side with Harding at the end of the movie, you’ll have to admit she has a side.

As a comedy, “I, Tonya” can be predictably dark. But by breaking the 4th wall and telling us interesting asides in the middle of the movie (in the vein of “The Big Short”), “I, Tonya” keeps things fresh. There’s nothing funny about spousal abuse—that doesn’t stop “I, Tonya” from trying. Rogers’s script skips around, gives context, and lets the main characters do almost all of the talking—whether in the main narrative or the recreated interviews that appear throughout. Harding’s story is undeniably movie-worthy, with a backstory that is surprising, if you come into it knowing only as much as the average American. When nearly all of the story revolves around Harding, it helps that so many aspects of her life are surprising.

Margot Robbie’s portrayal of the embattled skating champion deserves praise, and some gold. While the Australian actress can’t imitate the unforgettable look of one of the 1994’s most newsworthy women, she doesn’t have to (and I don’t think she really tried to), because she is able to capture the spirit and embody the unique personality that made Harding such a loved and hated figure. Although Robbie didn’t learn the triple-axel, she did spend months tirelessly working to convincingly skate like Tonya Harding. That alone is worth a standing ovation. In one of the year’s best supporting roles, Allison Janney steps outside my comfort zone to play the bitter, hateful mother that scared Harding into being the success that she was (or, at least, LaVona herself would tell it that way). Janney is known to play strong women and firm mothers, but in this case she pushes herself to a new level. It’s worth Oscar’s gaze. And in a breakout role, Sebastian Stan (best known to me as the Winter Soldier in two “Captain America” movies) shows that he can be an impressive character actor, using his acting camouflage to blend into the narrative and turn into Jeff Gillooly.

Although Margot Robbie’s leading performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination, she is far from the only thing this film has going for it. A sadistically funny script, terrific acting, a fun 80s soundtrack—“I, Tonya” is a well-rounded biopic that shares new insight and never lets itself get boring.


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