I, Tonya is a film directed by Craig Gillespie, starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale and Allison Janney.
In 1994, the figure-skating world was rocked by a brutal attack on US medal hopeful Nancy Kerrigan. The more shocking news was that the attack was allegedly conceived and executed by those close to — and perhaps including — rival figure skater Tonya Harding. This film is a recount of Tonya’s life leading up to the scandal, in a series of interviews from Tonya and her family.
At its core, I, Tonya is an antihero film. Figure skating is a sport that is known for its graceful, conventionally beautiful and “pure” competitors. Harding’s mere presence in the sport challenged those notions with varyingly successful results. This film reveals the hardships Harding faced due to the classist nature of the game and set up Harding as a girl of circumstance. From the domestic abuse from both her mother and husband to her handmade outfits due to lack of financial means, you gain an understanding of Harding’s aggressive nature.
I, Tonya is also an absurdist film in that matches the absurdity of the scandal itself. A lot of the cinematic choices help drive that absurdity home. We get a bit of the fourth wall breaking from Harding and Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan) throughout the film. Mixed in with how committed these actors are in playing these screwball characters, you sometimes forget that most of this isn’t dramatized for the big screen. Yes, LaVona Golden (played by Allison Janney) had done an interview with a bird on her shoulder (the film shows this real footage at the end credits).
That is where the success of the film lies: it’s cast commitment. Because the real-life people and events of this story are so odd, it lends to over the top performances that work. The highlight of this film is Allison Janney, playing Harding’s mother. As chain-smoking, bird-loving, crass LaVona, it’s hard to see where the real character ends and Janney’s portrayal of her begins. After watching this film, there’s no doubt in my mind that Janney’s name will be bought up for Best Supporting Actress for this role when Oscar season rolls around.
Where the film lacks are some of the intricate shots of Harding competing. We got a few scenes where the viewers get to see Harding’s full routine during a competition. In some scenes, it works really well and it looks seamless. Other scenes, you can see where they attached Robbie’s head in motion to the actual figure skater’s body. Those scenes, in particular, can be distracting and take you out of the performance for a moment.
Despite those hiccups, I ,Tonya overall is a wild ride. Harding’s scandal is one that is so well known, it can be perceived to be difficult to find a fresh take on it. But under Craig Gillespie’s direction and actors who immerse themselves into their characters, we have a dark dramedy that’s worth the watch.