Right off the bat, we know that we’re engaging in an unorthodox filmmaking style, much like the storyline of its lead character; the legendary figure skating national champion, world championship medalist, Olympian, and the first American woman to complete a Triple Axel in live competition, the one and only Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who rose among the ranks as a U.S. Figure Skater among the chaos that ensued during her rise to fame due to her sadistic relationship with her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, Black Swan, The Martian).
We’re given pseudo-documentary style shots that are reenactments of actors giving interviews while looking directly at the camera lens, formatted in a 4:3 ratio, emulating the real interviews that took place when all this debauchery went down in the early nineties. The story begins with Tonya at age four during the aftermath of the infamous ‘incident’ of smashing the kneecap of her former friend and rival, America’s favorite figure skater, Nancy Kerrigan, who, unlike Tonya, had all the traits the fans of the sport wanted as their representative. Tonya’s mother, a hardcore parent who appears to truly want what’s best for her daughter even though she has a cruel way of showing it through excessive abuse when she’s a little girl in the manners of harsh advice, most notably when adolescent Tonya is engaging in chatter with a fellow skater during practice, “Don’t talk to her! You’re not here to make friends!” Tonya was there to work, with hard earned money that her mother put up so that her daughter could have the necessary skills engrained in her in youth for the inevitable rise among the ranks as an adult in becoming a world champion.
I, Tonya is a dark comedy with several scenes that will make you chuckle with deep-belly exhalations that aren’t quite laughs, but, more so emissions. The entire script written by Steven Rogers (Stepmom, Hope Floats) is filled with vulgar one-liners and shocking scenes that come out of left field. Like when a kitchen knife is inadvertently thrown into Tonya’s arm by her mother LaVona Golden, in an impressive performance by Allison Janney (The Hours, Juno). LaVona dismisses the severity of the situation with post-scene transition from narrative to pseudo-interview, where she looks at us in the audience and says, “Oh, please. Show me a family that doesn’t have ups and downs.” Perhaps, a knife stabbing the arm of your daughter is minor, as it can always be worse.
There’s a lot of hilarious eighties pop-culture references. Like when Jeff Gillooly’s friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser, Super Troopers 2) delivers to the audience in a voice-over that he remembers “…one time Jeff took Tonya to a Richard Marx concert, that’s when I knew shit was serious.” When Young Tonya inadvertently wets her pants amid a practice session, her mother simply tells her to keep skating. It’s no surprise that this obsessive conditioning causes this little girl to flip people off like an immature adult would.
Aside from the home video emulation of real life interviews and Margot Robbie communicating with us in the audience amid the movie, the well-lit cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis (The Drop, Triple 9) excellently captured the eighties vibe director Craig Gillespie (Fright Night, Lars and the Real Girl) visualized in conjunction with a soundtrack filled with classics by ZZ Top, Supertramp, Laura Branigan and the renowned song “Dream a little Dream of Me”, leading up to an emotionally intriguing musical score in a montage for the climax, composed by Peter Nashel (Definitely, Maybe/New York, I love You), that reminds us we are watching an emotional drama and not a dark comedy.
After severe abuse from her mother, Tonya finally decides to move out and live with her on-and-off boyfriend and future ex-husband, played amazingly by Sebastian Stan in Jeff Willooly, the intervening character who inadvertently caused for Nancy Kerrigan’s kneecap to be beaten. In the story, we’re led to believe Kerrigan’s assault was never supposed to happen. He was found guilty, nonetheless, and served time in jail for his knowledge and concealment of the incident.
There’s no doubt that Willooly loved Tonya to obsessive degrees. After they break up for the twelfth time, Tonya hangs up the phone and tells him off. Jeff reacts by driving across the country because he had to have the last word. Jeff screams her name to an echo in an empty arena as she practices on the ice. “Tonya? No. Fuck you!” He turns and strides off. Tonya throws a look over her shoulder in admiration that Jeff drove all the way just to passionately cuss her out. There’s something oddly romantic about that and we see it in Tonya’s eyes. Behind the verbal and physical abuse he imposed on her, there was a lovesick neurosis to his demeanor that proved infatuation in any relationship is harmful, regardless of who the “Gardener” is or who the “Flower” is in the relationship. A thought-provoking question LaVona asks Jeff when she accompanies Tonya on her first date with him. To which she informs him, “I’m gardener trying to be a flower.”
Margot Robbie is phenomenal in her portrayal of the disgraced American figure skater. After the controversial chaos with the Nancy Kerrigan incident ensued by investigation from the FBI and public scrutiny, Margot Robbie genuinely delivers Harding’s emotions in a stunning climactic scene where just before Tonya’s to perform at the Olympics, she’s looking at us through the lens, but, she’s really looking in the mirror, smearing on her make-up. There’s genuine tears and fake-smiles. It’s dark. It’s raw. It’s real. And it’s what seals the envelope in her letter to the world that she’s a fine actress.
Perhaps, the mood of Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is for blue-collar workers living in rural areas what the tone of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was for Italians and Afro/Americans living in Brooklyn or the Bronx. Either way, the theme of I, Tonya rings true: America always wants someone to love and someone to hate. Everyone has their truth, and Tonya Harding got hers in this raw biography that gives justice to a figure skating legend who went misunderstood. At least that’s the story the filmmakers tell.