Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Caitlin Carver
In 1994, Olympic figure skater, Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked, hit in the right leg by ex-con Shane Stant. It was later determined that Jeff Gillooly, husband of her rival, Tonya Harding, planned the attack, and that Harding herself knew at least something about it. It’s not easy to admit, but considering that this act of violence took place in the posh world of women’s figure skating puts a humorous spin on the tragic event. This film understands that, and turns the material into a superior tragicomedy.
Employing a unique framing device in which multiple narrators tell their side of the story, often contradicting each other, we start with Tonya as a child, the daughter of a rabbit hunter and a waitress, in Portland, Oregon. She quickly demonstrates a prodigious talent in skating, and, after her father leaves the house, her profane, chain-smoking mother (Janney) constantly pushes her into becoming a champion skater. Later, as a teenager, Tonya (now played by Robbie) is one of the most talented skaters in the country, but can’t get a fair chance with the judges due to her being labeled “white trash.” She meets and falls in love with Jeff Gillooly (Stan), who soon reveals himself to be an abusive boyfriend and then boyfriend. All in all, it’s a tough life for Tonya, and her background goes a long way into making her a sympathetic figure.
The second half of the film, as Robbie addresses, breaking the fourth wall, is what we’re all interested in. The “incident.” I, Tonya leaning on its unreliable narrator technique portrays Jeff as simply attempting to send empty death threats to Nancy Kerrigan, as a means of psychological warfare. Here, the film, evoking the spirit of Fargo (or any other great crime-dark comedy you can think of), shows Jeff’s simple plan devolve into his friend, Shawn’s delusions of grandeur, and get out of hand quickly.
It’s compelling material, and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night, Million Dollar Arm) does a nice job with it. I, Tonya is consistently funny, well-acted, and fierce. However, I would argue it misses out on being truly poignant, and the fast-paced comedic tone drowns out much of, if not all, of the sadness. Not that there aren’t sad moments, but I just found them overshadowed by the funnier moments.
Margot Robbie gets her first great star vehicle and she’s been reeling in the awards. Her comic timing is excellent, but she’s also able to change tones with the film seamlessly, making Tonya into a well-rounded, fascinating character. Janney steals all of her scenes as the monstrous mother (somehow she still invokes our empathy). I liked I, Tonya, but I didn’t love it.