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I, Tonya – Movie Review

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I, Tonya – Movie Review

Rating: A- (Great)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy VVS Films

It’s bizarre to think that the 1990s happened so long ago, that films set during that period could honestly be referred to as period pieces. For people of a certain age, the name “Tonya Harding” doesn’t immediately ring bells. Craig Gillespie’s biopic on the controversial figure skater works in how it portrays the events in a way that properly contextualizes it for a younger audience. Rather than merely retelling her life story, I, Tonya seeks to explore why she became the person she was, entirely uncensored. There is an energy to this film that will allow it to appeal beyond skating aficionados.

The decision to tell the story through mock interviews is a clever one and gives the film the right pacing. It’s also helped by the strong group of actors Gillespie brings together. As Harding, Margot Robbie displays the proper fierceness and determination, but never attempts to make us sympathise with her. Few of the participants here can truly be called good people. The most horrific is Harding’s mother, played with a cutting sharpness by Allison Janney. I, Tonya doesn’t paint her actions as a necessary evil and actively shows how her treatment might have played a role in Tonya’s bad influences. Harding probably would have been even a better skater without her mother’s terrible parenting skills. This mother-daughter relationship is a toxic one and I, Tonya deserves credit for not sugarcoating it. Don’t expect a teary-eyed reunion here.

I, Tonya also highlights domestic abuse, when showing Harding’s marriage to Jeff Gillooly. As portrayed by Sebastian Stan, Jeff is clearly a pathetic individual and there’s a harshness with which Gillespie directs the couple’s scenes together. Steven Rogers’s screenplay manages to explore what attracted Harding to this man and why she just couldn’t pull away. The one notable exception in this band of unsavory people is Harding’s coach. Played with the proper amount of sincerity by Julianne Nicholson, one sees a woman trying desperately to unlock the better and more professional skater underneath the brash exterior. The film effectively cuts between the participants as the multiple viewpoints intersect.

The figure skating scenes are choreographed with the proper energy, even as it’s evident Robbie is not the one doing it. Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing is particularly key as the sequences are cut together to give the sport some extra spice. The different filmmaking styles are seamlessly integrated, so it’s never jarring. Nicolas Karakatsanis has a proper ‘90s aesthetic, but not distractingly so. Whether one knows of the knee capping incident or not, the scenes leading up to it are directed with a surprising amount of tension. The media coverage is portrayed with a certain degree of satire, yet the focus still remains on how Harding deals with the aftermath and her husband’s foolish actions.

I, Tonya doesn’t rely on old biopic tropes in order to tell this story. The proper information is conveyed in a way that’s zippy and entertaining and provides the proper context for the events. This is a story that would have lost its luster, had the filmmakers tried to sweeten the whole ordeal or make the people involved seem friendlier than they actually were. Tonya Harding was a flawed person with a huge amount of potential and that’s what makes her fall from grace so fascinating. Margot Robbie is given the opportunity here to play more than the pretty girl and she excels. Even a scene where she struggles to tie her shoelaces is riveting, with credit going to both Robbie and Craig Gillespie.


Stefan Ellison

Stefan Ellison