I very much enjoyed this highly entertaining biographical drama about the controversial ice skater Tonya Harding, which plays as part savage black comedy, part tragedy, and part Mommie Dearest.
Though I wasn’t all that young at the time, somehow I completely missed out on the infamous incident that put a stop to Harding’s career, and the only facts I was vaguely aware of before watching the film were that it involved a) Harding’s fellow skater and b) violence. So I went into I, Tonya with a clean slate and no preconceived ideas. Though it never portrays its subject as perfect or even an always reliable narrator, the film does give many sympathetic reasons for why Harding turned out the way she did. It’s also rather refreshing to watch a sports biopic that is not a moving story about succeeding against all odds (nothing against those but they do tend to follow a rigid formula).
The film is built around faux-documentary, straight-to-the-camera interviews, in which Tonya (Margot Robbie), her ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) recall their stories in flashbacks. At the start of the film, four-year-old Tonya’s talent on ice is obvious enough to convince a reluctant coach to take her on. To her domineering, foul-mouthed Mother from Hell, ice skating is no hobby – it’s a blood sport. When little Tonya attempts a friendly chat with another skater, LaVona shouts, that girl’s your enemy! When Tonya wets herself because she’s not allowed a bathroom break, her mother coolly instructs her to skate wet.
Eventually Tonya breaks away from her abusive mother, only to fall into an abusive marriage with the first guy she dates; after growing up with LaVona, emotional and physical violence is as everyday as toast with jam. On the skating rink, she may not be a vision of grace and charm, but Tonya’s secret weapon against the rest of the ice princesses is her ability to land a triple axel – something that no other woman can do. In 1991, she’s crowned the U.S. Women’s Figure Skating Champion, but her redneck crassness and the lack of a proper wholesome image still rubs the judges and officials wrong. Forget her volatile mother and husband though – according to the movie the biggest blight on Tonya’s career was Jeff’s obese, delusional idiot of a friend, who had a bright idea of hiring a couple of goons to bash the knee of Tonya’s chief rival, Nancy Kerrigan.
I, Tonya moves at a brisk high-energy pace, with the period-appropriate musical choices giving it an extra oomph, and does a fine job juggling comedy and pathos. I found Tonya’s toxic relationship with her appalling mother the most interesting aspect, with Janney stealing every scene she’s in. Though it’s no Charlize Theron in Monster level of transformation, and you never quite forget how drop-dead gorgeous she is, Margot Robbie gives a remarkable, raw performance as rough-as-guts Tonya, suggesting a transformation that’s more about attitude and body language. With her permanently tensed mouth and eyes that are about to flash with anger any moment, she really sells a personality whose drive to win seems to be about I’ll show you all you bastards more than anything else. Trashy as she may be, in the end you do feel sorry about the way Tonya and her undeniable talent got chewed up and spat out.