‘I, Tonya’ gives figure skater Tonya Harding her due

Jeff and Tonya in earlier, happier days.
Photo: Neon / Courtesy

Four stars

I, TONYA Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.

Nobody would think of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding as someone who didn’t get sufficient press coverage, so at first it’s hard to imagine how a biopic about her could offer any new insights. The 1994 attack on Harding’s Olympic skating rival Nancy Kerrigan, in which an associate of Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly struck Kerrigan in the knee with a baton, was a massive news story at the time, and Harding herself has continued to be a favorite subject for tabloids, along with the 2014 ESPN documentary The Price of Gold. So director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers have a lot to overcome before I, Tonya even starts, yet the movie’s level of confidence and style immediately blows those preconceptions away.

Drawn from actual interviews with Harding, Gillooly and others, the movie plays out as a self-aware commentary on the inability to discern the truth of a situation when everyone involved is out to make themselves look good. Even so, the movie isn’t called I, Tonya (rather than, say, I, Jeff) for nothing, and what Gillespie, Rogers and star Margot Robbie accomplish most of all is to rehabilitate and reassess Harding without ever letting her off the hook for her bad behavior. Robbie’s Tonya is a working-class girl who has none of the financial or familial advantages of her figure-skating competitors and relies on her determination and sheer athletic ability to rise to the top of the sport.

Although Tonya’s voice dominates the movie (in asides to the audience and in direct interview-style segments), she’s often contradicted by the whiny, self-pitying Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who seems to derive his entire sense of self-worth from his connection to Tonya, and her nasty, foul-mouthed mother LaVona (Allison Janney), who credits her own cruel treatment for making Tonya into the superstar skater she became. Rogers’ screenplay is full of dark humor impeccably delivered by the cast, but even as the filmmakers are wringing laughs from Tonya and Jeff’s volatile relationship, they never make fun of domestic violence or emotional abuse. Tonya is funny because of how she comments on and moves past the terrible things she had to endure.

Robbie is fantastic as the defiant, resilient Tonya, and Janney makes the most of her screen time as Tonya’s monster of a mother, who never apologizes or softens, even (or especially) when her daughter needs it the most. Gillespie masterfully uses fractured timelines, conflicting first-person accounts and re-creations of actual news footage to tell a story that has no heroes, while making sure his protagonist retains the dignity and grit taken away from her for so long.

Tags: Film
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