Mark Reviews Movies

I, Tonya


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Craig Gillespie

Cast: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Mckenna Grace, Caitlin Carver

MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity)

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 12/8/17 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 7, 2017

Whom do we believe for the truth of this story? Two things are clear by the end of I, Tonya: The filmmakers aren't entirely certain whom to believe, and it's entirely possible that the people within the story aren't certain what the truth is any longer.

You might remember the brouhaha leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics, in which someone assaulted figure skater Nancy Kerrigan with a metal baton. The attack ultimately tied back to fellow skater Tonya Harding—from the attacker to a friend to her husband. During a series of interviews in the present day, the Tonya of the film, played by Margot Robbie, repeatedly insists that she had nothing to do with it, but she knows that none of that matters. There's a shot of Tonya bludgeoning her rival with a baseball bat. That's what most people think they remember, imagine happened, or joke about when discussing the matter.

She was, to some extent, the most prominent villain of her day, at a time when the 24-hour news cycle was in its infancy (Near the end of the film, one can see news footage of O.J. Simpson on a television in the background, as reminders of both how quickly this cycle solidified itself and how rapidly these cycles renew themselves). That's how most people likely remember her. Others might recall how she skated up to the judges table during the Olympics, placing her skate-covered foot on the table to ask for some mercy regarding a lace.

A few might have seen something beneath the media-created villainy or the punch line-ready drama. The real Harding always seemed excited, eager, and determined while skating. Everyone else was ready-made for the cameras, but Harding, who came from a poor background and had to make her own costumes while working day jobs to stay afloat, always skewed a little off by comparison.

She was convinced that the judges were out to get her, and in one scene in Steven Rogers' screenplay, one judge basically admits to that. Since the film's Tonya is telling that part of the story, we're not sure if we can believe the episode, but we can't deny that Tonya felt that way at the time and still, apparently, feels that way to this day.

The film isn't particularly about the attack or, as the characters here refer to it, "the incident"—a fairly loaded word that suggests it was something that just happened, without any human participation in it. Rogers and director Craig Gillespie show us how it happened, of course, and they leave just enough room to doubt whether their version of Tonya is being forthright in her denials. The more important question on the film's mind is how Tonya ended up in such a position to have any involvement in this, to become an international figure of contempt, and to still have words like "doubt" and "uncertainty" float around when people talk about what she did, knew, ordered, or suggested in regards to the attack.

Her story is one of relationships, and the most noteworthy relationships in Tonya's life are abusive. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) pushed her daughter to skate from a young age, although the young Tonya also loved it. We can see the competitive edge come from LaVona, who doesn't celebrate her daughter's talents as much as she compares her accomplishments to the other young skaters. When Tonya does well, it's with the inclusion of the fact that she's younger than the others. When she does poorly, it's always framed in failing LaVona, a single mother who has had to give up a lot to ensure that Tonya gets her lessons.

The other relationship is with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a seemingly nice kid from Tonya's neck of the woods in Portland, Oregon. After only a few weeks of dating, the present-day Tonya says that he started hitting her. The present-day Jeff argues that it was more of a mutually abusive relationship (Tonya calls B.S. on a scene of her going after her husband with a shotgun in Jeff's telling). The present-day LaVona denies any abuse on her part, but if there's one thing we know about abusive people, they're good at covering for themselves. "Never talk to Jeff," Tonya warns. "He'll talk himself out of anything."

The narrative constantly moves between one person's facts and another's. Gillespie approaches the veering stories with little pause for us to register who's saying what and who may have done this or that. It's information overload in a way, but it doesn't keep us from comprehending the state of Tonya's life. Quite the contrary, we get the sense that hers is a life of perpetual falsehoods and outright lies—the ones her supposed loved ones tell her and others to keep themselves from fault, as well as the ones she tells herself in order to justify her own shortcomings and to see her abuse as part of a normal life. It has to be "normal." If it's not, then there's something wrong with her life, and that is the last thing Tonya wants to admit. She has to be perfect, just like the rest of those skaters.

We can comprehend this, and we can see how Tonya becomes a victim of circumstance, of others' abuse, and of her own state of victimhood—seeing conspiracies against her, even though they might not exist. Robbie's performance is strong, transforming Tonya's early joy and hope into a sort of performance itself. The younger Tonya of I, Tonya genuinely smiles after her routines, but in her later routines, she has transformed into a clown of sorts, with caked-on makeup and a plastered-on smile. She may know she's defeated, but when she's on the ice, she's not going to let anyone see it.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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