Every once in a while a story comes around that is so crazy, so absurd, so unbelievable that the truth becomes difficult to ascertain. I, Tonya is about a story like that. Director Craig Gillespie uses that quality to create a tremendously entertaining film that plays with the idea of truth.
For those not around in 1994, Tonya Harding was a championship level figure skater who gained worldwide notoriety when she was implicated in an attack on competitor Nancy Kerrigan during Olympic qualifying. I, Tonya tells her story, from childhood through the incident, based mainly on the testimony of Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. It tells their sometimes contradictory tales in a straight-faced, satirical, and occasionally very funny film.
The screenplay, by Steven Rogers, follows the outline of a traditional sports biopic. But, while it tells Harding’s life story, it does so with a smirk on its face. Rogers, Gillespie and their stars (Margot Robbie as Harding, Sebastian Stan as Gillooly and Jewish actress Allison Janney (from the CBS sitcom Mom) as Harding’s mother) understand the craziness of this story.
They also take what could have been a detriment and turn it into a fascinating positive. Not only do Harding and Gillooly disagree about key events, Harding takes no responsibility for any of her mistakes. I, Tonya uses these discrepancies to question the idea of this story having one definitive truth. Does it matter how everything actually went down as long as everybody is okay now?
As we follow Tonya’s story, the film intersperses interviews with the actors as their characters looking back on these events. That is where all the denials come in. I cannot count how many times one of the characters says some variation of “that never happened,” “Tonya is exaggerating” or, Tonya’s favorite, “it wasn’t my fault.” There is no personal responsibility here. I, Tonya makes this clear, but never goes out of its way to mock them. It lets their words and alleged actions speak for themselves.
This is helped immensely by the cast, who never show that they are in on the joke. Margot Robbie is great as Tonya. She is effective at showing a woman who terrified the skating world with her abrasive attitude, while feeling completely helpless in her relationships with the two most important people in her life. As shown here, she felt like the world’s punching bag and her only defense was to swing back as hard as she could.
That attitude was encouraged and facilitated by her mother, LaVona. As played by Allison Janney, she is a mean woman who wanted her daughter to be great and felt like the only way she could get there was by being repeatedly smacked around and told how worthless she was. Looking for love, Tonya ran into the arms of the first person who showed her affection, the dangerously insecure Gillooly. Sebastian Stan plays him as slightly buffoonish. Due to his abusive and controlling behavior, he is constantly in danger of losing Tonya. That mindset is what led to the incident, which is related in great detail in the film’s final stretch.
This is all told with a darkly comedic tone in a movie that seems more interested in exploring the truth as the key players see it than in being a traditional biopic. I, Tonya is a fast-moving film that tells its story with wit and a surprising amount of insight. It shows the true story according to Tonya. She would probably say that is the only truth that really matters.
4¼ out of 5
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews