I, Tonya opens by boldly proclaiming that it is based on the “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true” interviews of Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly and never betrays that statement. Cutting between staged interviews of the actors as their characters in present day and cinematic reenactments that fit what one might expect from a biopic, director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers toy consistently with reality and fiction and how they are weaved together. It’s part true-crime drama, part mockumentary, part complete disregard for the fourth wall. And it works.
Immediately entertaining, the actors committed to becoming the players in this fictional recontextualization of events long past really have no qualms with being the most abrasive people alive. As harsh as she might be, Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding is a sympathetic figure, and Sebastian Stan plays Jeff Gillooly like a man who’s aware enough he has a problem, but vehemently refuses to acknowledge the lengths to which his domestic abuse situation took him.
To make a multi-decade story short, the tale of Tonya Harding as depicted on screen goes something like this: she’s talented at skating, has an abusive mother, has a father who leaves her, has a coach who supports her, meets a boy, skates a lot, and is plagued with issues while trying to make it big. But boiling it down into something as simple as this negates just how much depth there was to the story of Harding, a woman who truly loved skating and was stopped from taking her passion as far as she could for a number of reasons.
As boisterous and amusing as the lead characters might be, quite literally asking the audience to believe their side of the story, Robbie and Stan effectively become the people they’re portraying. Robbie plays Harding from her mid-teens to her twenties and all the way up to her forties, but she’s so compelling as the famous figure that we never bother questioning such a decision. It must be said that the supporting cast occasionally grapples the narrative away from the leads, with Allison Janney as her mother LaVona Golden and Julianne Nicholson as her coach Diane Rawlinson playing two entirely different souls who complement each other (and Robbie) beautifully. But this cast of characters manage to create a world that’s as amusing as it is tragic and Gillespie is adept at using his lens to approach a number of sensitive subjects.
Though some will misinterpret the film as one that uses domestic violence solely for laughs, I, Tonya seems more interested in subverting the initial humor. There’s levity to the way Harding and Gillooly bring up their abuse at first, but the script insists that this is a toxic relationship and not one to be romanticized or laughed at. It’s hyper-focused on exploring how people in them have to live with this distorted idea of what love is and watching an audience go “aww” at Gillooly being apologetic only to wince and squirm when he beats Harding only emphasizes its effectiveness.
Rogers’ script suffers in two instances: when the film devolves into a slow true-crime drama for a short period, without ever engaging with Nancy Kerrigan even though she’s a primary component of “The Incident”, and when it tackles the media and their sensationalizing of every possible event, specifically in an attempt to fill in a 24-hour media cycle. Bobby Cannavale is appropriately scuzzy as a “Hard Copy” producer, but his inserts become unnecessary bloat in a film that already has so much to say about media assaults on “unlikable” figures. A single shot on a television of them moving on from Harding and Kerrigan to the O.J. Simpson scandal and Harding’s own peppering in of meta-commentary is enough.
By no means is the film subtle in the way it approaches domestic violence, classism, sexism, and the media, and it’s just as loud and ambitious formally as it is thematically. The admittedly excessive effects work that went into making the ice skating scenes pop might bother some, but they allow the moment, full of anticipation, to land as flawlessly as Harding lands that triple axel. Where the film’s editing throws the viewer from moment to moment off the ice, the second the camera steps on the rink, it flows fluidly and follows her closely. I, Tonya is well aware that the only place Harding felt true happiness was on the ice and, no matter how many laughs were had along the way, stands as a painful reminder of how her career was dismantled by everyone around her.
Directed by Craig Gillespie; written by Stephen Rogers; starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, and Bobby Canavale; 121 minutes.
I, Tonya will experience a limited theatrical release in December. It played on November 16th at Key West Film Festival.