I, Tonya is a gritty and trashy account of Tonya Harding’s career as an ice skater, from her earliest days to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. While it starts with “post-mortem” documentary interviews from the major players, we’re slowly immersed into her world through flashbacks of her home life, marriage and career. We grow with the figure skater as her reckless and naive talent is refined, or perhaps defined, by the etiquette surrounding competitive ice-skating. Instead of focusing solely on the pursuit, we journey with Harding from her difficult upbringing with a witch of a mother to her rocky marriage and beyond.
Versatile Australian director Craig Gillespie could have gone for something hard-edged, but dwells in the realm of dark comedy, giving I, Tonya its wild-eyed charm. This decision and retrospective mockumentary point-of-view, soften what could have been a much more unsettling drama. While softer, the wacky tone certainly creates tension as abusive relationships are treated with a Tom & Jerry nonchalance. These violent moments are fairly frequent and unnerving when you consider this is deemed pretty normal behaviour for many people who have grown up in violent cultures.
“…there’s only two things I do well, sweetheart, and skating’s the other one!”
While rough-hewn, funny and unashamedly trashy, the film pivots on key performances from a solid ensemble much like Logan Lucky. Alison Janney is monumental in an arguably career-best performance as a domineering mother whose definition of tough love comes with a side order of psychological and physical torture. Margot Robbie delivers a transformative performance as Harding (not to be confused with Jamie Pressley), whose full tilt adoption of Harding’s situation undoubtedly involved gaining weight, extra muscle and effecting some figure skating manoeuvres to recreate some of her most famous competitions. While Sebastian Stan is solid as Harding’s husband, it’s Paul Walter Hauser who steals the show as a dark horse and great find in a memorable supporting role as a self-deluded secret agent who lives with his parents as a cover.
The ice-skating re-enactments are masterfully composed, the wacky and trashy tone keep it upbeat while the story’s wild characters turn it into a circus of calamity. This is a wild and character-driven sports biopic about raw talent, famous rivalries, rebellion against the system and the dangers of becoming embroiled in negative publicity.
The film’s good pacing, firecracker tone, larger-than-life characters and strong performances are the main reasons to see I, Tonya. The trashy language, subculture and undercurrent may not suit everyone, but certainly anchor the film in Harding’s hard knock world. It’s manic, entertaining and fascinating to get an insider’s perspective on what really happened… or did it?
The bottom line: Trashy