I, Tonya is a fascinating, mesmerizing metamorphosis that you can’t look away from. One of the most infamous stories in or out of the sports world is given irreverent, charming life. A series of the most unsavory, irredeemable people are pushed through a tender pastel filter and we are left with a true story too wild to believe but too enticing to ignore.
For those too young to remember, figure skating used to be one hell of a thing. Like, more than just once a forever when the Winter Olympics rolled around, and at the forefront were names like Oksana Baiul, Brian Boitano, Michelle Kwan, and, of course, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. But something real rotten happened in early January of 1994: Kerrigan was attacked, preventing her from competing and paving the way for Harding to take gold the following month.
This is what the bulk of the film captures. Played by Margot Robbie, Harding’s entrance into competitive figure skating and eluding her detestable upbringing (among the skating community, apparently) exploded into a powerhouse of a competitor. Things get a bit…derailed, however, as she has to deal with the psychological damage done by her mother (Allison Janney) and her eventual husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).
And let’s be clear right away: these are terrible people all around. Categorically. Some of them, in fact, so much so that it’s hard to believe that they are lifted whole cloth from reality. One unnamed Hard Copy reporter played by Bobby Cannavale actually describes the culminating incident thusly: “the operation was done by two of the biggest boobs in a story populated solely by boobs.” And that just might be an understatement.
In full credit to the movie, however, it works. Instead of spending the entire 121 minutes hating everyone and everything presented to you, these dummies are truly, genuinely endearing. Even Harding’s mom, who is a reprehensible, abusive, selfish, altogether shitty person, is given points of purchase for your empathy. Key to it all, though, is undoubtedly Harding herself.
She’s a self-described redneck, lacking the money and pomp that usually flow around figure skating. She’s bullish, impulsive, disrespectful, and probably a bit legitimately insane. Her arc is immediately and unabashedly laid out almost as a bet between the filmmakers and the audience. Between the hazy but violent public opinion bleeding out of every single person in the world and the fourth wall-breaking digressions, it’s a blatant gambit that tells us this is a villain, but you won’t believe what we can do with her.
Her layers are incredible. They’re painful but informed, even if you’re not sympathetic to the cause or the effect. And best of all, they’re all built upon her relationships—vital connections to other people that give her actions and consequences real heft. It’s not just her rampant mistakes and irresponsible core but about how our bad decisions are wholly our own but they are irrevocably formed by our environment.
Much of this is thanks to the acting chops of Robbie. Her nomination for a Golden Globe in this role is no mistake; she is superbly potent here. She plays the naivety of a beaten and weathered 15-year-old prodigy (yeah, it’s just as funny as it sounds) impeccably well and grows it perfectly into the tortured champion and all the way into the sour rebuttal of a human that she is today. Her joy, her rage, her indecision—it’s palpable in this performance.
The same goes for Janney as Harding’s mother LaVona Fay Golden (who actually did win a Golden Globe for her role). Her acerbic parenting tact is as shocking and cringe-inducing as it is funny and tantalizing. It’s her small turns from wavering in her maligning so-called nurturing to committing whole-ass to her completely twisted idea of parental sacrifice that do it. You can see the facade slip before she doubles down, but it’s easy to see the pain never leaves. Until it does, and hearts break.
Stan is also terrific and warrants heaps of attention as well, but special recognition goes out to Paul Walter Hauser playing Shawn Eckhardt, Harding’s bodyguard and the boob that gets the knee-whacking ball rolling. He is so perfectly sleazy and oblivious that you will wonder if he’s real at all. (Spoiler: he definitely is and my god Hauser is spot-fucking-on.) And there’s the soundtrack, which seems perfunctory but adds a tremendous power to the accompanying scenes. They hit harder with these classic power rock tracks.
It’s a huge validation of a film like this that turns a cast of idiots and lowlifes and scoundrels into a story of sorry, thoughtful characters (that also manage play into a commentary about America’s past and current addiction to scandal). None of them are at all ever redeemed, but it’s impossible not to identify with every single one of them at some point or another. And it’s that magic that turns this movie into one worth watching and talking about for months to come.
Final Score: 9 out of 10