‘I, Tonya’ scores gold
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Mckenna Grace, and Paul Walter Hauser
“I, Tonya” – “America. They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate.” – Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie)
Twenty-three years ago, and specifically during the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the most hated person in America was a 23-year-old figure skater. Tonya Harding. The American public directed their ire - fueled by a constant media swarm from both very reputable and questionable news outlets - at Ms. Harding due to the infamous assault on her main rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) at a Detroit ice rink just one month prior. Although, Harding did not conduct the assault herself, many Americans were convinced that she not only knew about the Kerrigan attack ahead of time, but probably masterminded it.
Take a ride in a time machine back to February 1994 and ask anyone in the Continental United States, “Who is the world’s number one villain?”
Some might throw out Darth Vader, Count Dracula or Freddy Krueger, but Tonya Harding could be the most popular answer.
Thanks to director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl” (2007), “Million Dollar Arm” (2014)), movie audiences do not need to build a time machine, because he takes us to the 1994 Winter Olympics and all the way back to the 1970s in an intentionally chaotic and surprisingly uproarious Tonya Harding biography that is nothing short of brilliant, explosive cinema. Simply put, “I, Tonya” is one of the very best films of 2017 and should not be missed by those who lived through (and those who did not live through) the 1994 firestorm about an unlikely ice skater/villain.
The picture moves like a motorcycle breezing at 85 mph through 55 mph freeway traffic, darting, zipping and cutting through crowded lanes and offering unexpected moments of danger. Throughout the film’s entire 119-minute runtime, Gillespie repeatedly stuns us into holding our breath, grants us some temporary relief and then throws us into sudden detonations of humor at unorthodox, bizarre and tragic turns that became Ms. Harding’s life, especially during the winter of 1994.
Filmed as a feature film biopic - with a documentary-feel that repeatedly breaks the fourth wall - Tonya (Robbie), her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) air out their perspectives that help organically explain the dysfunction within this skater’s universe. In the end, Gillespie’s film – supported by writer Steven Rogers’s script – invokes sympathy towards Ms. Harding as well.
LaVona – fueled by a steady diet of cigarettes and gurgling internal frustration and rage - pushed young Tonya (nicely played by Mckenna Grace of “Gifted” (2017) fame) to be the best and considered anyone within eyeshot or earshot an enemy. Her acidic attitude towards everyone in her path did not spare Tonya either, as one immediately recognizes LaVona as the chief antagonist. Every second of Janney’s performance projects a villainess hypnosis that shocks, disgusts and engenders volatile bursts of hilarious disbelief. One would have to search very hard to find an ounce of LaVona’s humanity, but it probably resides beneath thousands of layers of deep-seeded abuse and neglect, and the results are equal bouts of horror and laughter. Hands down, Janney should win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and Robbie should – at least – be nominated for Best Actress.
During a Q&A session at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, Robbie said that she practiced skating for three or four months, five days per week, and even though computers helped present a CGI triple axel on-screen, she did all of her own skating. Robbie is a marvel to watch. She seems to channel Harding during the skater’s awkward teenage years, biggest successes, downfall, and even in present day, by speaking to the camera in her kitchen and reminiscing about her sorted history in between cigarette puffs. Much credit should go to the film’s makeup department, as Harding’s various looks were scarily spot-on.
The film not only reveals the level of LaVona’s verbal and emotional abuse, but Jeff’s never-ending physical (and emotional) violence against Tonya during their turbulent relationship too. Together, LaVona and Jeff stand as Tonya’s most soul crushing demons that make millions and millions of haters after the 1994 Kerrigan attack pale in comparison.
“I, Tonya” does not have a recent comparison-film, as this highly unique comedy and odd, dramatic biopic constantly amazes during its nearly two-hour journey. Harding’s history, including the ill-planned Kerrigan assault, glues our eyeballs to the screen, and Paul Walter Hauser should also garner a special achievement award as Tonya’s “bodyguard” Shawn Eckhardt. Along with Robbie and Janney, the three deliver a triad of unforgettable performances that are absolutely worth multiple viewings, and not because we love to hate their work and the movie. “I, Tonya” is – somehow - just easy to love.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.