Review: I, Tonya (2017)

I, Tonya

Rating

Director

Craig Gillespie

Screenplay

Steven Rogers

Length

1h 59m

Starring

Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, McKenna Grace, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser

MPAA Rating

R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity

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Review

Controversial figures often make the most compelling biographical subjects in cinema, giving us a chance to get to know figures who may be completely misunderstood. I, Tonya is just that type of film, brought vividly to life by a slew of talented and compelling actors.

The biopic has been a sometimes stuffy, sometimes engaging part of cinema since very early in its existence. After all, seeing the lives of famous people on the big screen gives you an understanding of who they were and what made them so special. The genre has, however, become staid in its structure, forcing audiences to relive the same plot construction and development over the course of a two-hour film.

Every once in awhile, however, a biopic comes along that’s fresh, engaging, and surprising. I, Tonya is all of those things, an inventive take on the genre that breathes fresh details into a subject matter that those of a certain age may remember in detail, even if the details herein are not quite what they remember.

Leading up to the incident that stunned the world, I, Tonya explores Tonya Harding’s (Margot Robbie) childhood and life prior to the Olympic Games. Harding, played with crass indulgence by Robbie, was at the center of a perceived rivalry with fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Child and spousal abuse feature prominently in this tal,e at first from her mother, a manipulative and almost-frightening Allison Janney, then later with her boyfriend and eventual husband Jeff Gillooly, the mustachioed Sebastian Stan with a mixture of passion and violence.

The film is acted with genuine verve as well as tongue-in-cheek splendor. Robbie gives an insurmountable performance of emotional complexity. A character who is at once both relatable and repulsive. A product of circumstance who never took responsibility for her part in her own failures, Robbie demonstrates that at the heart of every villain, there’s both a kernel of truth and a kernel of salaciousness, neither of which are mutually exclusive.

Janney is a powerhouse as Tonya’s mother LaVona. A stage mother of repulsive disruptiveness, she gives no quarter and cares not for how she looks as she terrorizes and infantalizes her daughter well into her 30s. This is a terror of a mother whose only redeeming quality is the genuine sense Janney gives us that she really does think she’s doing it all for Tonya’s own good. Even if the audience recognizes that it’s her mental and physical abuse that tarnishes Tonya’s own ability to rationalize or internalize her darker side.

On the other side of the coin is Stan as the abusive boyfriend/husband Gillooly. A punchline for years afterwards, the impassioned man is at once both loving and cruel. His own home life mirrors that of Tonya’s, which informs his behavior towards her. While there’s clarity in just how much he actually loves her, his actions through much of the film take a more possessive and sinister tone. All of this is a credit to Stan’s performance.

Director Craig Gillespie takes Steven Rogers’ fascinating script and turns it into a byproduct of its era. Combining the kinds of footage one might have seen on Jerry Springer with an aesthetic that plucks itself right out of the 1980s and early 1990s. The he said-she said motif employed at various points in the film adds narrative depth and helps set up the idea that no two stories, especially first-hand accounts, are exactly the same. The abuser and the victim view events from different mindsets and I, Tonya gives visual voice to those dynamics.

I, Tonya is a vivid portrait of a child, whose whole life is skating, who grows up abused, yet determined. The details of the case are realized with grim satisfaction and a Coen-like dark comic glee. The film is energetic and creative, most effectively splitting screen on occasion as well as breaking the fourth wall at regular and fitting intervals. This is a film to experience at least once.

Oscar Prospects (Originally selected prior to the Oscar nominations)

Guarantees: Supporting Actress (Allison Janney)
Probables: Actress (Margot Robbie), Original Screenplay
Potentials: Picture

Review Written

July 23, 2018

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