Summary: The story of famed figure skater, Tonya Harding, and her falls on and off the ice.
Weirdly enough, I have a long history with figure skating. It was one of my favorite sports to watch when I was a kid (that and tennis- like I said, weird), I dabbled in a few classes, had pictures of Kristi Yamaguchi on my wall growing up, that kind of thing. Tonya Harding was a She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, a punchline, or a verb that implied you’d do anything to get what you wanted. At the time when Nancy Kerrigan was attacked in “The Incident” (as it’s dubbed in the film), I was young enough to understand she had done something very wrong, but not aware enough of her position in the sport. And for the most part, Harding subsequently disappeared from the public eye allowing speculation and conspiracy theories to substitute as the truth.
Starring Margot Robbie, I, Tonya brings 1994 back to the forefront and tells things from Harding’s point of view, with her mother (Allison Janney) and husband (Sebastian Stan) jumping in here and there. It’s a piece led entirely by unreliable narrators (terrifically acted) and by the end, we still don’t know what happened in The Incident- we’re given more information but it’s still up to us to decide what happened. With themes of truth, perception, and storytelling running the show, I, Tonya simultaneously absolves all of its participants while still giving you the implication that somebody here did something. The movie is integrated with documentary-style interviews of its subjects, inconsistently disregards the fourth wall, and labels itself as a comedy.
That last bit works in some areas and comes off puzzling in others. Let’s put it this way: after seeing this movie and understanding the circumstances of Harding’s upbringing (abusive household, poor), marriage (abusive marriage, still poor), insecurity (made fun of for being poor and her physicality), the laugh-laugh moments are slightly uncomfortable and exploitative when we see the effect of them in later stages of Harding’s life. I’ll use the portrayal of Harding’s mother here, LaVona as played by Allison Janney- early in the movie, she pushes 4-year old Tonya around, cusses openly, and shoves her off a chair at one point; this is all accompanied by upbeat pop music and quick editing, as LaVona bemoans disdain for her child and situation using expressions that are too ridiculous to take seriously- and this underplays the seriousness of the abuse Tonya was forced to endure as a child and what she later walks into with her husband. It’s a fairly effective technique, as the humor from the earlier scenes starkly contrast those that follow and we realize we’ve been just as gaslighted by LaVona as Harding was. While Harding’s normalized perception of this behavior in relationships is understandable, it’s troubling to watch especially with the comedic tones as we are more aware of circumstances surrounding abusive relationships and the tactics employed.
The non-skating scenes are the most impressive and work wonders in painting Harding as a determined young woman who knows what she needs to do to get to where she wants to be rather than the exaggerated figure we are so familiar with. Robbie’s performance, while hammy at points, has a real sense of desperation while still being tough and unfaltering. (I’ll admit, it’s a bit tough to believe her as a 15-year-old and I didn’t see her as Harding until we reached the later teen, early 20 stages.) Janney and Stan are also fantastic. The acting and performances are the reasons to see this film.
Side note: I think I, Tonya could have made more of a mark as a feminist piece of work, but that’s just me. It’s lightly talked about once or twice when Robbie mentions she and Kerrigan were pals and the media created the rivalry between them, but it’s not played up as much as it could have been. There were lots of non-skating related factors that played into Harding’s initial lack of success and subsequent determination- why not play up that women athletes are held to entirely different standards? Harding was never as concerned with Kerrigan as much as she was with her own performance and showing her drive as an athlete might have garnered our subject more attention (deservedly so) for her technical accomplishments and created better questions of why she has been virtually erased from figure skating history books.
I think I, Tonya has a lot of good ideas and deserves merit for its unusual presentation, but it does have a lack of consistency that keeps its third act from being truly engaging. The majority of the movie does work though and the events leading up to The Incident make Harding a tragic character, eaten up and spat out by those around her. And for the first time, I didn’t mind pulling for Harding to be successful.