I, Tonya movie review: a woman at war with herself

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I, Tonya green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A black comedy about domestic violence, parental abuse, and low self-esteem (and it works!), one that challenges our appreciation of how true based-on-fact might be.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I’ve heard tell that there are people — young people, but still adult people — who have never heard of champion figure skater Tonya Harding and don’t know why she was famous for a while in the 1990s for reasons that had nothing to do with her athletic ability. This astonishes me, but probably shouldn’t. In fact, it’s a totally apropos underscore to I, Tonya’s running motif about the vagaries of fame and the inadvisability of putting all your emotional stock in it, as a wannabe famous person, current famous person, or has-been famous person.

Anyway, I, Tonya plays just fine if you don’t know who Harding is or why she was famous — or, more properly, infamous — and I’m certainly not going to be the one to spoil it for you. (The reason is alluded to several times before the movie gets to the actual event, because the whole story is told in a series of flashbacks as the major players reminisce on the incident. But those allusions might slip by if you’re not already attuned to what happened, because it’s frankly so bizarre that you’d never guess that these people were speaking factually and unironically.) Perhaps the more astonishing thing is that this movie is a black comedy about domestic violence, parental abuse, and low self-esteem… and it works. It works in a way that does not diminish the horrors of those things, and is funny about them — in a dark, bitter way — only in how they rely on people lying in often ridiculous ways to themselves and others about the realities of their lives. And even then, it’s not that we’re intended to laugh so much as we’re meant to see the deployment of bleak humor by the narrators of their own stories as a way to distance oneself from things too terrible to consider full on.

Police at the rink. Not an Agatha Christie cosy.
Police at the rink. Not an Agatha Christie cosy.

We’re definitely being lied to by someone here, because — as the grimly witty screenplay by Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers, P.S. I Love You) points out from the get-go — it is based on wildly conflicting statements from, primarily, Harding (a marvelously prickly Margot Robbie: Suicide Squad, The Legend of Tarzan) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan [Logan Lucky, Captain America: Civil War], almost unrecognizably skinny and hideously moustached), who goes from her boyfriend to husband to ex over the course of the story. They address the camera as if being interviewed by director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, Fright Night) to relate their sides of the events depicted in the flashbacks; sometimes they break the fourth wall within the flashbacks to offer snarky asides. It’s a clever way to acknowledge that often there really is no way to get at the truth of things, sometimes because someone is outright lying, but also sometimes because people’s perspectives on events, even when they were both present, can be very different (sometimes because of the aforementioned lying-to-oneself).

Margot Robbie is marvelously prickly in a rare portrait of a woman as a flawed human being full of hypocrisies.

I, Tonya is unquestionably on Harding’s side, though: the film makes plain that whatever poor choices she may or may not have made, and whatever she may or may not be lying about, she got a raw deal out of life at every turn. Her mother, LaVona Golden, is abusive, emotionally and physically, and excuses her abuse as a kind of encouragement of her daughter, who showed talent on the ice from a very young age; Allison Janney’s (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Girl on the Train) outrageous performance is funny only in the audacity of Golden’s horribleness. But far more insidious — and something the movie bleeds more tart humor from — are the class barriers that Harding constantly runs up against in the figure skating community. Her personal abrasiveness, the public awfulness of her mother, her lack of education, her lack of money: her coarseness is contrary to the fantasy image figure skaters are “supposed” to project, of privilege and elegance and grace. It’s hard not to sympathize with her frustration that she is never judged solely on her speed, her strength, and her athletic daring on the ice, all of which are prodigious, and groundbreaking.

But Robbie’s Harding is a complicated, contradictory woman as well, oozing massive self-delusion that is a challenge to us, and to our acceptance of her side of the story — nothing is ever her fault, even when it clearly is — and yet also adds to our empathy for her. For her, violence is an expression of love, something she learned not only from her mother but from Gillooly, who she met when she was 15; during the events under scrutiny here, he is her first and only experience of sex and romance. (Stan is appropriately nasty and oily, twitchy with an insecure man’s quick and easy violence. Gillespie lets Gillooly’s lashing out at Harding come out of the periphery, as a startling shock.) She seems fully aware, in her direct address to us, of how love and pain are intimately connected in those relationships… but then she can, with all true sincerity, ponder how ridiculous it would be for her to hurt someone she loved, as the scandal that would become her notoriety would be about.

Tonya Harding’s horrible mom, hate-watching her daughter compete on TV.
Tonya Harding’s horrible mom, hate-watching her daughter compete on TV.

I kinda wish that I, Tonya focused a little more on how the media treated Harding. In brief “interviews,” Bobby Cannavale (Ferdinand, Daddy’s Home) as a producer for Hard Copy, the tabloid trash-news TV show that clung to Harding’s story like a rabid bulldog, notes that this all happened just as the 24-hour news cycle was becoming a thing and there was a lot of airtime to fill. So much of the injustice of Harding’s story is down to the all-news channels lapping up the scandal; so many of the ways in which Harding was punished in the larger culture for not being a “proper” young woman are down to them.

But that would have been a very different movie. With its intimate focus on Harding as a difficult personality, this is still an extraordinarily rare sort of portrait of a woman as a flawed human being full of hypocrisies, strong-willed yet weak, tough to pin down. We don’t often see movies so willing to confront women on their own terms as people. We’ve had a few this year, including Colossal and Ingrid Goes West; all three of these films are, not coincidentally, from the same new upstart distributor, Neon, in its very first year. That a film company appears to be building its reputation on movies like these is, I hope, an indication that it won’t be long before they don’t feel quite so unusual.

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Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Tue, Dec 26, 2017 12:31am

Given the number of editorial cartoons back in the day that would have you believe that Ms. Harding was a handy symbol for everything that was wrong with American culture, it is indeed ironic that she is so obscure today. Then again, given all the hype produced about O.J. Simpson’s recent release from prison, it’s not like members of the American news media have learned a lot about discretion since then.

Edited to Add:

It might have been nice if either the movie or your review had said anything sympathetic about Nancy Kerrigan. Ms. Harding might not have deserved a lot of the problems she had to deal with prior to her notorious deed — but neither did Ms. Kerrigan. And she did not deserve to be punished for Ms. Harding’s problems.

reply to  Tonio Kruger
Sat, Jan 13, 2018 6:45am

Was there a need? When the story broke, everybody (rightly) sympathized with Nancy Kerrigan. Nobody needs to be persuaded now.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Tonio Kruger
Sun, Jan 14, 2018 5:52pm

And she did not deserve to be punished for Ms. Harding’s problems.

Literally no one is suggesting that she did.

Ruthless Goat
reply to  Tonio Kruger
Thu, Feb 15, 2018 1:03am

Kerrigan got all the sympathy in the world, in real time. I remember it well as Tonya Harding was the ultimate monster. There was no mercy for her. I’m glad that the movie did not mewl all over Kerrigan as it would have detracted from the story. The bit role that Kerrigan played in the movie was perfect. It was simply not about her other than being the victim of idiots who would today gleefully vote for Donald Trump.

reply to  Ruthless Goat
Wed, Mar 07, 2018 1:03am

Kerrigan got the sympathy until she behaved like a boor after Oksana Baiul won the gold medal. It came across as feeling entitled to win the gold by default, even though Baiul had been injured in a practice collision the day before with another skater (not Tonya Harding). The problem with the media hype around the whole mess was not just that it turned a troubled young woman into an attempted murderess of a princess, but also that it turned a young woman who from many accounts could be short-tempered and impatient into a saint. Whether it was the “corniest thing I’ve ever done” remark about the Disney parade, her own remarks about Baiul, her ducking out on the closing ceremonies at the Olympics, her affair with her manager that broke up his marriage (she has now been married to him for about 20 years) —
all flew in the face of “Princess Nancy” that the media created. The media created Princess Nancy and then tore her down when she didn’t live up to the image. Tonya and Nancy are intertwined in perpetuity, not just because of “the incident”, but because both were flawed women who flew in the face of the image that was expected of them.