So the “incident,” which is how everyone describes it in I, Tonya, didn’t cause that much physical damage. Nancy Kerrigan pulled it together to win a silver medal six weeks later at the 1994 Winter Olympics. It’s not the most violent scene in the movie, that’s for sure. One poorly executed hit job, and Tonya Harding’s skating career ended while her life of infamy began.
Of course, you’re only in the spotlight for so long. This new Harding biopic makes this point very literally; the camera crews drive off the moment O.J. Simpson pops up on TV. But this movie, directed by Craig Gillespie, doesn’t try to be subtle about anything, and God bless that.
I, Tonya is here to prove that Tonya Harding is a human being and a survivor, while simultaneously teasing us with all the dirt we could want. It caters to the angel and the devil in us. I wouldn’t say the movie’s flattering to Harding; even the present-day version of her character can’t take responsibility for any of her poor decisions. But whatever you believe about Harding’s involvement in Kerrigan’s attack, her life story makes her pretty sympathetic. She endures nonstop physical and verbal abuse from her mother, LaVona, and her husband, Jeff Gillooly. The skating community looks down on her hand-sewed costumes and lower-class upbringing. No one in her life looks out for her–just themselves.
The filmmakers have admitted everyone’s real-life interviews are wildly contradictory, so the movie riffs on that, framed as a faux-documentary where the principals all share their own version of the events. This structure keeps things loose, pinballing from the ugliest moments of Harding’s life to the sheer stupidity of every part of the Kerrigan attack. It’s all there in its messy glory, which suits the Harding persona well.
Of course, the conceit gets too heavy-handed. We don’t need Tonya to look straight at the camera and tell us we’re her persecutors. We get it. We know it’s part of our national obsession, to elevate our heroes so high that we feel satisfied when they fall. But isn’t that why we’re watching this kind of trashy movie, too? Aren’t we still exploiting this woman by buying a ticket?
Margot Robbie is a gutsy, go-for-broke Tonya. She’s definitely made her share of mistakes (most notably, staying anywhere near her husband), but she’s a real woman with the smarts to make something of herself. Still, Robbie is not an exact replica of Harding. She’s working against her natural type, and can’t shake the fact that she’s more physically imposing than the real skater. Next to the mature Robbie, the real Harding looks like a little girl. Jeff Gillooly gets no such redemption; he’s the obvious punching bag, and Sebastian Stan (very good) lets us have at him.
And Allison Janney steals the show as LaVona. She’s a foul-mouthed monster of a mother, the most terrifying version of Madame Rose you’ll ever see. Even at her most abusive, Janney knows how to pull laughs by incinerating every punchline that comes her way. I won’t spoil it, but Janney is especially stunning in her final, emotional meeting with her daughter. She makes the best case for I, Tonya’s swings from drama to comedy and back again, shifting her own emotions on a dime and rolling with the punches.