- Product Rating -

I, Tonya

| December 22, 2017

If I’m going to see a movie based on true events, I’d prefer to see one based on true events that are stranger than fiction. They’re just more inherently interesting. What they don’t do, though, is just give a free pass to the filmmakers, and thankfully I, Tonya is a movie that knows that. While imperfect and rough around the edges, it still manages to entertain and amuse, with tonal choices that are fitting both in terms of writing and directing. It hits some bumps in the latter half, but it translates its sarcasm into sympathy nonetheless, largely thanks to some fantastic performances.

Ever since her childhood, Tonya Harding (Makenna Grace as a child, Margot Robbie as an adult) has been trained to excess by her deadpan and abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janney). Come the late ’80s and early ‘90s, Tonya is one of the most successful figure skaters in the world, pulling off triple axles while being dismissed by judges due to her unfeminine and imperfect persona on and off of the ice. After falling for, getting married to, and getting divorced from Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), she becomes embroiled in a scandal involving the assault of rival skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), a case that would eventually lead to Tonya’s becoming banned from competitive figure skating for life. As a biopic inspired by actual events that captured the public eye, I, Tonya is immediately a cut above comparable films in that it’s a black comedy, not a drama. It has the type of cringe humor and mean-spirited comedy one would usually see in a wholly fictional satire, and yet screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) forge something based in reality yet fueled by palpable energy.

I, Tonya is, in theory, strictly an actor’s film, but those onscreen manage to breathe life into what can sometimes be a (knowingly and unapologetically) messy ride. Robbie, who also produced, carries the movie on her shoulders, showing that playing a role straight need not be utterly serious. Underneath the frizzy hair and shoddy makeup is a woman whose femininity is seen as undercut from the beginning of her life, a person whose contradictory elements make her more confusingly alive than the idiots around her. Robbie’s charisma has been seen as the brightest spot of some varyingly bad movies before, but I, Tonya fits with her humor, and to some degree, her image, while supporting players hold their own in spite of some uneven amounts of screen time. Janney’s performance has been made quite a big deal of, and she’s very good, but the script in some ways undercuts her talents in how it handles her.

The writing from Rogers generally fits in line with the positives of the film that lay within the performances. Still, it differentiates itself in humor and structure with jokes at the expense of characters that it otherwise understands and several instances of breaking the fourth wall without seeming cutesy in such decisions. The script does do a pretty good job jamming years of content into two hours and conveys information to the uninitiated, but it does sometime stumble in its choices regarding scope. The relationship between Harding and Kerrigan is glossed over in what feels like a matter of seconds, and the way in which Janney’s character is sidelined is so jarring that the film feels obliged to make a verbal reference to it but doesn’t really play up the consequences of a scene involving her towards the end. These changes in focus, including the film’s shift from portraying Harding’s backstory to portraying the Harding/Kerrigan incident, make a few scenes collide and negatively affect the pacing in the latter half. Thankfully, Gillespie’s direction has a buoyancy and the technical craftsmanship helps elevate the movie when assistance is needed.

I, Tonya definitely isn’t a perfect movie, and its flaws held it tantalizingly close from greatness. In a way, that’s fitting given the subject, but this particular outcome hinges more on coincidence than intentionality. Although it doesn’t always contain itself in the most fitting of ways, Gillespie and Rogers present a fascinating story in a manner appropriate to those involved and the themes tied to theme, while Robbie and company—but mostly Robbie—ground the ridiculousness. There’s humility, hilarity, and humanity to be had here that’s executed well, even if the final product can sometimes feel closer to a spiral than a triple axle. The spinning is modestly hypnotic either way.

About the Author:

Senior year film student at Columbia College Chicago, Hollywood Film Festival pre-screener, and Best Social Media Presence for North Farmington High School's 2014 senior mock elections. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff".
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