Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) has been figure skating since she was three years old. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) is a cold-hearted woman that is emotionally and, at times, physically abusive over Tonya’s childhood. Following her parent’s divorce, LaVona pulls Tonya out of school so she can train full time with her coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). When Tonya is 15 she meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). What starts out as a sweet romance turns into a rocky and sometimes violent marriage. Jeff’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) is a self-proclaimed bodyguard and counter terrorism specialist. As the 1994 Winter Olympics approach, Jeff concocts a plan to frighten Tonya’s main competition Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) by sending threatening letters with the hopes that it improves Tonya’s chances of winning the national championship and being named to the Olympic team. Shawn contacts a couple of guys, one of them being Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), to travel to Massachusetts and mail the letters; but something goes wrong and Shawn begins improvising leading to one of the biggest scandals of the 1990’s: The clubbing of Nancy Kerrigan’s knee.
“I, Tonya” takes a look back at a 20-plus year old controversy with a mildly jaundiced eye but manages to freshen up the subject with snappy writing, great performances and a dash of social commentary. It also makes Tonya Harding sympathetic while not letting her off the hook. It’s a masterful balancing act that is funny while being honest about what a bunch of idiots everyone is.
While all the performances are great in “I, Tonya” there are two that really stand out: Allison Janney and Paul Walter Hauser. Despite playing an evil and heartless woman, it is impossible to not be entertained by Janney’s performance. Janney makes LaVona mesmerizing the way a good villain should be. LaVona doesn’t care what you think about her or what you think in general. She’s the boss no matter what situation she happens to be in. Try to correct her and you will face the wrath of a very cranky god. How much of LaVona’s actions (or any characters’ actions) in the movie are factual is open to debate. What can’t be debated is Tonya Harding had an unconventional and abusive childhood that led to the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and that all starts with LaVona. Janney maintains the cold detachment of someone operating on autopilot. She has a set series of tasks and she goes through them clinically and without emotion. While she does flare up into anger on occasion, LaVona is usually in absolutely control. Janney makes that control terrifying and soul-sucking. She deserves all the awards that are headed her way with this performance.
Paul Walter Hauser is amazing as Shawn Eckhardt. Dimwitted would be an understatement when it comes to Eckhardt. He has read enough to know how to throw around a few words and phrases about security and counterterrorism but has no real experience and frequently lies about his travels to other countries and jobs in the field. Hauser plays Eckhardt like he’s just woken up from a nap. He seems to be in a daze and only perks up when the conversation involves something he’s interested in. Eckhardt is an annoying character that everyone involved would be better off without. Looking back I’m sure the real Tonya and Jeff Gillooly wish they had never met him. Hauser has terrific comic timing and turns a repulsive character into one that lights up the screen with just how dim he is.
The story of “I, Tonya” isn’t just about the life of Tonya Harding and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan: It also looks at the social disparity in figure skating. While it isn’t so much the case now, Olympic-level figure skaters are looked at like ballerinas. They are the artistic swans compared to the rest of the sports world’s ugly ducklings. There is a certain expectation about how competitors should look and behave and Tonya Harding didn’t fit into their preconceived notions. In a scene that I’m sure never happened in reality, Tonya approaches a judge after a competition and asks why she is scored lower than other skaters. He tells her it has more to do with her lifestyle than her performance on the ice. The judge is telling her if she doesn’t have a happy family and access to a six-figure income she should just move on and let the rich kids have the ice. It is a sad scene on a couple of levels as Tonya has her suspicions confirmed while also feeling like she has to try and create the façade of a happy and traditional family. She reunites with Gillooly and approaches her mother in an effort to repair a relationship that was broken from birth. Naturally it ends in failure. That is the true heartbreak for Tonya and all the characters in the film: They simply aren’t good enough. It is a revelation that is obvious from the start with some characters but only becomes apparent later on for others.
“I, Tonya” is rated R for violence, some sexual content/nudity and pervasive language. We witness the domestic violence that occurs between Tonya and Jeff as well as Tonya’s mother beating her as a child. There are a couple of scenes at a strip club with one dancer visible in the background. Tonya and Jeff are briefly shown having sex once. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.
The fourth wall is broken in “I, Tonya” as the characters speak directly to the audience throughout the film. These occur as both recreated interviews and also when the characters talk to the audience during scenes. It’s a refreshing way to involve the audience in the story in a more direct way but it doesn’t always work. In “I, Tonya” it does. The movie also provides some updates on what the characters are doing now. In Tonya’s update it says she is married, has a young child and notes that she insists the update include that she’s a good mother. She certainly learned what not to do so I hope she is. The life of Tonya Harding shouldn’t be interesting fodder for a movie and without the attack on Nancy Kerrigan it probably wouldn’t be. With an amazing script from Steven Rogers and spot-on performances from the cast, “I, Tonya” is a fascinating look back at a tabloid story from before the age of Facebook and Twitter that still managed to mesmerize the public for months. It will also keep you entertained for another two hours in a theatre.
“I, Tonya” gets five stars.
There are several new movies this week. I’ll be review “12 Strong” for WIMZ.
I’ll review one of the following for this webpage:
Den of Thieves—
Forever My Girl—
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