I, Tonya Has a Triple Axel to Grind

Movie review: I, Tonya

Margot Robbie goes for the gold as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding in Craig Gillespie’s dazzling ode to dysfunction that captures the early daze of reality-based entertainment

I, Tonya

4/5

Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Running time: 2 hrs

Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

Figure skating and cults have a lot in common. Both demand complete commitment and submission to constant judgment. Both elicit followings so drenched in ritual and ceremony they feel tribal, and both — sadly — can scar you for life.

It’s a world of high-drama and high-risk athletics, Shakespearean theatre on razor-sharp blades, and when it all comes together, it’s absolute poetry. Yet, when it all falls apart, it’s I, Tonya.

Perhaps the sharpest dissection of the figure skating world since Will Farrell blew it apart at the seams in Blades of Glory, I, Tonya takes us into the clique-ridden cult of figure skating through the back door of the Tonya Harding scandal.

You remember. It was 1994, in the breath before O.J. Celebrity news was still a novel distraction that “real journalists” dismissed as fluff. Then Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, and a nobody wielding a metal bar turned a prissy and properly private world into a saloon brawl that would end on Olympic ice in Lillehammer.

Harding never took home a medal, but she would forever be weighed down by suspicions she was complicit in the metal bar “incident” that injured Kerrigan, and left a nasty stain on the red, white and blue sequins of Team USA.

I, Tonya may finally change all that. Craig Gillespie’s biopic brings new dimensions to the story that not only make Harding — played here by Margot Robbie — undeniably sympathetic, they reveal the quiet class differences that inevitably doomed a young, talented and ambitious kid from the very start.

Craig Gillespie’s biopic brings new dimensions to the story that not only make Harding — played here by Margot Robbie — undeniably sympathetic, they reveal the quiet class differences that inevitably doomed a young, talented and ambitious kid from the very start.

Harding grew up poor, in a broken home, the subject of domestic abuse. She wasn’t supposed to have access to the princess world of custom skates and private lessons, patch time or tulle costumes. Yet, from the moment we see little Tonya in her furry hat as a feisty three-year-old, we’re rooting for her to go all the way.

The beauty of Steven Rogers’s script is his resistance to exploit sentiment, despite so many ripe fruits bending into his grasp. Acquiring the rights to her life story, then conducting interviews with Harding as well as ex-husband and alleged mastermind, Jeff Gillooly, Rogers pieces the narrative together through re-enacted bits and pieces of real life.

Tonya Harding Margot Robbie Figure Skating movie

In Your Face! Margot Robbie nails the elation of landing a triple axel as Tonya Harding.

Yet, he doesn’t pretend to know the truth. In the opening frames, he tells us the movie is based on wildly contradictory testimony from the principal players. The tension between different versions of events gives the film an internal clockwork, and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) lets the cogs of human craziness do the rest.

The script gives everyone a believable emotional core, warped by what we now recognize as a pathological lens of self-awareness enabled by ambient cameras. As a result, Gillespie’s whole tone is a tragic wink — straight into barrel.

What makes it bearable, and maybe even too pleasurable given its cruel content, is Margot Robbie’s unrelenting, unpredictable, and entirely uncompromising performance, summarized in three words that capture Harding’s truth: IN YOUR FACE!

What makes it bearable, and maybe even too pleasurable given its cruel content, is Margot Robbie’s unrelenting, unpredictable, and entirely uncompromising performance, summarized in three words that capture Harding’s truth: IN YOUR FACE!

Harding was a redneck who became the first woman to land a triple axel — a feat the filmmakers pay homage to with the use of stunt doubles and rotoscoping. She was IN YOUR FACE! in order to survive in a traditionally snotty and haughty sport. She was IN YOUR FACE! to overcome an abusive home life. She was IN YOUR FACE! because that’s where she hoped she might, finally, find love as a champion.

Robbie nails Harding’s inner drive, and in turn, reveals a very unlikely — or, atypical — heroine. Women are punished for asserting themselves. Harding knew it. And yet, her response: IN YOUR FACE!

Robbie nails the unashamed determination. Coupled with Allison Janney’s inspired work as Harding’s mother, LaVona, and Sebastian Stan’s equally mesmerizing embodiment of the boob, Gillooly, we gain a deep admiration for Harding’s will to fight.

She’s anarchy with a bad perm, an axel-wielding threat, and a rebel with a relatable cause. I, Tonya is a modern American tragedy carved in ice on blades of rust, but Robbie and the filmmakers make it bleed a comic, bright red because they find what every sport movie needs most: heart.

@katherinemonk

Photo above: Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan play Harding and Gillooly, courtesy of VVS Films.

THE EX-PRESS, December 22, 2017

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Review: I, Tonya

User Rating

3.9 (23 Votes)

Summary

4Score

Perhaps the sharpest dissection of the figure skating world since Will Farrell sliced it apart at the seams in Blades of Glory, I, Tonya takes us into the clique-ridden cult of figure skating through the back door of the Tonya Harding scandal. A trailer park kid who happened to love skating, Harding was never accepted in the princess world of sequins and backstabbing competition, yet she persevered and succeeded. Director Craig Gillespie captures all the grit, and with it, enough heroic content to elevate Harding's character. Robbie plays it all perfectly by being IN YOUR FACE for the duration. Fun, smart and entertaining, I, Tonya resists sentiment, yet remains emotionally charged. -- Katherine Monk

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