At the end of 2017 there was one film that a LOT of people had on their radar that I just couldn’t wait to see expand to national release. That film was “I,Tonya” and as soon as I saw it was showing at my local theater I jumped in my car and rushed down to get a look at the film for myself. Touted by many as one of the best films from 2017 and, now, 2018, “I, Tonya” provides a hilarious but brutally honest take on its subject, the controversial figure skater Tonya Harding, and makes for a unique and entertaining journey into the life of a shattered Olympian. But, how well does it hold up to expectations? Here is my review of “I, Tonya”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“I, Tonya” chronicles the life, upbringing and career of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), a two-time Olympic figure skater who was banned from the sport for life due to her alleged involvement in the 1994 attack on her former friend and rival Nancy Kerrigan. Acting as a mockumentary, the film featured “interviews” with Tonya’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her mother LeVona Fey Golden (Allison Janney in a Golden Globe winning role), Tonya’s coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), and Hard Copy producer Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) as cinematic representations of real-life events are brought to the big screen with voice overs by the numerous characters. As the film progresses everyone involved gets chance to tell their side of the story, leaving the true villains of history up for the viewer to decide.
Obviously, the performances in “I, Tonya” are worth commending, bringing numerous Golden Globe nominations and one win earlier this month. The cast is led by Margot Robbie who continues to show her ability to completely embody characters on screen by turning in an astounding portrayal of the controversial titular skater with a bit of comedic flair and attitude. While almost every performance in the movie is overdramatized to a certain extent, Robbie’s is truly impressive as she puts her comedic chops to the ultimate test and gives us a real-life character that is truly human. Robbie’s performance turns a controversial figure into one we can hate with sympathy by drawing from real-life tragedies and experiences to bring to light Tonya’s redeemable qualities without glorifying her questionable life choices. Robbie is a powerhouse that drives the story without overpowering her fellow actors and while she doesn’t truly redeem Harding, Robbie does make her out to be just another person with flaws and a past to the extent that this performance asks us all to wonder if we are truly any different than a woman we all agreed to despise.
I can’t go without mentioning the Golden Globe winning performance of Allison Janney who expertly brings LaVona Fay Golden to life. Janney seems to truly have fun playing an absolutely despicable, emotionally and mentally abusive and unapologetic woman who was the source of much of Tonya’s self-esteem troubles at an early age. Janney’s performance is just as hilarious and jaw dropping as Robbie’s and is a standout in a cast of very good actors as she dominates every scene she’s in, at times even giving Robbie a run for her money. At the time of her Golden Globe win few had the chance to truly experience her performance and now that “I, Tonya” has been wide released it’s truly one of the best aspects of the film that makes it a welcome, unique and frankly hilarious story to behold.
The remainder of the cast are no push overs. Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale and others all turn in equally hilarious, nuanced and memorable performances as different people “interviewed” for the mocumentary and presented in Tonya’s story. They all have their place in the story and while they don’t take the spotlight away from Robbie or Janney each character is just as memorable and funny as the last making for an all around dynamic and charismatic ensemble cast that brings everything together nicely.
“I, Tonya” is directed by Craig Gillespie who made some very interesting choices in his presentation of the story, which was written by Steven Rogers. The decision to turn this into a mockumentary style film actually worked out great and the camera angles and cinematography brings the viewer right into the action, especially on the ice. Most of all though it’s a serious story that doesn’t take itself too seriously. To take a story as well know and controversial as Tonya Harding’s and do it justice while also making its controversial subject likable is a difficult task, but Gillespie handled the mission with careful detail and creativity. I’ll get into the finer details in a second, but I felt Gillespie’s approach to portraying this tale warranted specific credit to his direction as without a great eye and inspired mind behind the camera this movie could have been a real train wreck.
There really is a lot to love about this film. To start I truly enjoyed the mockumentary style. It made this film feel more like a “true events” film told through the eyes of it’s central characters, but avoided the easy and much more straight forward dramatic presentation many biopics tend to employ. Here we see a true story told with near-meticulous detail in mind, but adds a more comedic and self-referential tone that makes the film feel much less like a documentary or typical biographical drama and more like a truly chaotic real-life story that could have actually taken place. Nothing in this film is presented to glorify or demonize anyone because it’s all told through perspective rather than as unquestionable fact. To that end it’s a film with many layers that makes it a pretty deep movie going experience for some and a very enjoyable and entertaining film for those who choose not to look under the surface.
“I, Tonya” also ups the anti on another level by having characters break the forth wall many times as the story is told, which draws the audience right into the film making you feel like you’re getting a first hand experience of the actual events. Sometimes it even adds to the hilarity of the film. One of my favorite parts in when Tonya’s coach, Diane Rawlinson, views the skater training in unorthodox Rocky-esqe manners and looks at the audience to say this actually happened. This approach made the movie engaging and unique by making the audience part of the experience rather than just outside viewers. Add this in with the actual “interviews” with each character, that also break their own wall by responding to each other despite not being in the same room, and you have a film designed to give you multiple perspectives at the same time and keep you engrossed in everything this story has to offer whether it’s Tonya’s abuse or the drama behind the attack on Kerrigan.
On top of it all “I, Tonya” is just a very fun and hilarious movie. Regardless of how invested you are in its real-world inspiration, “I, Tonya” will make you laugh and it will keep you entertained from start to finish. Even if we know the result, it’s still fun to see it all play out and the balance of comedic timing and dramatic impact adds significance and, again, layers to this experience instead of pandering to a specific audience. This is the kind of film viewers can walk into and enjoy regardless of what you’re looking for. It has a little something for everyone so whether you’re seeking out a deeper story that reveals some uncomfortable truths about Harding or an effective comedy that will make your belly hurt from laughing so hard this film has it all in spades.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
There’s not a whole lot I didn’t like about “I, Tonya”, but there was at least one aspect of the movie that I felt was more unnecessary than anything else. In addition to being self-referential and breaking the fourth wall, “I,Tonya” is also very in the face of its viewers with a message that almost tries to absolve Tonya Harding of any wrongdoing which, truth or not, could leave a bad taste in the mouths of some more invested viewers familiar with the 1994 situation. In some ways this pays off, such as the commentary on figure skating’s focus more on lifestyle and appearance than actual skill, but at other times it’s very heavy handed especially when Harding tells viewers it’s partially our fault for the misery she suffered later in her life. The film didn’t really need to make that point and that’s really it’s only flaw.
Over the course of the film we see situations play out that allow viewers to decide for themselves just how much blame Harding should have had for Nancy Kerrigan’s injury This was enough to allow viewers to make their own determination. I admit that Harding subjecting the audience to ridicule matched the tone of the movie, the character presented, and the mockumentary style but for me it took me out of the film just a bit in the end making me feel like the movie’s main purpose was to absolve the sins of a woman who, for all intents and purposes, was at least partially guilty at the end of the day. The story does a fine job helping Tonya Harding earn redemption through depictions of her life, it didn’t need an in-your-face message at the end to make us feel like victims ourselves. Still, to be honest, this approach DOES work, but that’s doesn’t mean it was necessary.
I absolutely LOVED “I, Tonya”. Very few flaws, great acting, a few powerful social messages, awesome directing, a unique style and approach…it all comes together to create one of the most entertaining comedies I’ve seen in some time and one of the most memorable and unique biopics I’ve ever seen. It’s only potential flaw is whether or not you accept it’s in-your-face message of redemption at the end, but for the most part this film is a well balanced and engaging adventure into the chaos of one of the most controversial acts in figure skating history and one of the sport’s most divisive figures. Considering how long I wanted to see this film I was pleasantly surprised by the result. Whether you despise Tonya Harding, sympathize with her, or are just interested in the story behind the woman this film brings everything to the table and does it in style.