I, TONYA Review

The story of Tonya Harding is one of a true American tragedy. Tonya Harding is America. She is unapologetic for the way she was raised and is seemingly either embraced or rejected immediately. She is emblematic of America's tendencies to always need someone to laugh at, a necessary punchline to fool ourselves into believing we're better than something or someone despite the outward appearance of wanting to be welcoming and tolerant of all walks of life. I, Tonya is a portrait of this single woman's life that would seem the perfect vehicle for a rags to riches story, the kind of story America typically likes to celebrate and champion in showing how much we, the people, promote this idea of advancement and the improvement of one's status through nothing other than hard work, but in the case of Harding we get the opposite: a life of nurturing that was anything but; where every person wanted a piece of the only beacon of light and hope in their lives while punching her down to feel better about themselves rather than pull her up. Tonya worked hard her whole life-devoted every fiber of her being to this passion (which is something it seems no one in her life, with the exception of maybe her mother, would question the hyperbole of or dispute), but no matter how hard she dared work she was never a match for the fact her image was not that of who the skating world desired to represent them. It is these constant battles, the ones that cause people, relatives, coaches, to ask, "Why are you the way that you are?" that come to define exactly who Tonya Harding was and no doubt still is. She is a real human being who dared to have the right amount of balls to not be defined by a sport that never wanted her, but that she couldn't do without. Her relationship with figure skating being indicative of every other relationship Harding would have in her life; passionate, but flawed. Complicated being an understatement. And sure, there are two sides to every story, of course, but in the case of I, Tonya there are multiple sides to her story and in particular to the event that came to define her life and who she was in the public eye. It is in this examination of how Harding is forced and mostly refuses to balance herself between the world she is from and the world she is meant to be a part of that serves as the crux of what director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and writer Steven Rogers (Hope Floats, Stepmom) are attempting to say while Harding herself and all her story represents just happen to be the perfect, searingly tragic vehicle for such a theme.   

Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) have an awkward first encounter.
© 2017 - NEON
From the opening moment of Gillespie's film we know what we're in for. There is no trepidation as to what I, Tonya is, there is no first act that establishes and settles the audience into the type of film this is as the film itself figures those things out. No, from the word "go" I, Tonya is assured of itself in a fashion most films can only dream of being. I, Tonya is a tragedy, undoubtedly, but it is also conveyed through the lens of a black comedy and how could it not be? It evaluates the audience by asking if America is really as virtuous as all upstanding citizens would like to believe while laughing in those people's faces by essentially flaunting the more cut-throat, opportunistic side of our great country. I, Tonya shows you the kind of people on America's backburner-the type of people that are never invited to be on the covers of magazines or as a representative of a group or company-and puts them on full display. The movie cops to the fact there are reasons these people have been put on the backburner, whether it be for behavior that is largely labeled as socially unacceptable or economic reasons and it finds a kind of sadistic glee in exploiting their shortcomings (or perceived shortcomings), but this is all done in a constituted effort to paint the broader picture of the cavern Harding had to straddle in order to feel comfortable in who she was while accomplishing what she could. There is no doubt ever given to Harding's talent and the film in turn works hard, but makes it feel effortless, when showing the audience how inherent this skill was to this particular individual. Introduced as the fifth child from husband number four for Lavona Harding (a ruthless Allison Janney) we are given the impression that there was never a choice for Harding other than to skate. At a "soft four" Tonya's mother takes her to meet local ice skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), who is hesitant to train someone so young, but who recognizes the natural talent and, six months later, has her winning competitions at that young age. The driving beat of Cliff Richard's "Devil Woman" serving as the backdrop for this opening exposition that positions Harding as the exception to the rule; a skater who was always meant to stand out rather than fit into whatever version of a woman the judges wanted her to be. Through the powers of fantastic editing, a handful of incredible performances and Rogers' screenplay made up of, "irony free, wildly contradictory, and totally true interviews" with Harding and her now ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), I, Tonya becomes a culmination of these multiple accounts and varying perceptions that paints a portrait of this tragic characters tragic arc making you not only care about Tonya Harding, but sympathize with her.

The very first shot of the film comes courtesy of these mockumentary-like interviews that Gillespie uses to frame these events and features the gorgeous Margot Robbie frumped-up into looking like Harding via 1996 as she rocks her denim jacket and sits alone in what is presumably her kitchen smoking a cigarette. She looks not unlike her mother in her interviews save for the bird that is regularly perched on Lavona's shoulder as she spouts defenses about her daughter's raising and the bigger price she paid of having to make her daughter despise her in order to push her to her full potential rather than ever apologizing for the acts she seemed to so frequently be called out for. This introduces that weird dichotomy that exists between parents of kids who the parents know are exceptional and who are willing to push them to the point they will eventually and inevitably resent them, but also stand a better chance of succeeding. Look at the history books: Michael Jackson, Brian Wilson, and countless others who have dealt with the question of, would Harding have traded her abusive childhood for a more normal upbringing in exchange for the success she would come to experience on the ice? Of course, while the likes of Jackson and Wilson experienced true victories in their professional lives, even if the cracks of that fractured upbringing began to show through eventually for each, Harding wasn't ever really afforded much more than becoming the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel. Lavona abused and scared her daughter into becoming an exemplary skater and while much of her childhood and even into her formative years are rough beyond measure there was always the rink where Harding could seemingly escape to. This inherently damaged state of mind almost inevitably leads to an alternative way of thinking and approaching things that in turn produces what allowed Harding to prosper on the rare occasion she did; rage making her a better performer on the ice, for example. This question of if Harding will ever be able to have her cake and eat it too is one biopics such as this tend to try to answer, but with I, Tonya we know the answer to this question before we even sit down to watch the movie. We know there is no hope, there is no reprieve from being the white trash figure skater that had to resort to below the belt tactics in order to try and win rather than to do so with the style, grace, and dignity everyone above her social class always assumed she lacked anyway. This is a story where the odds are stacked against our protagonist on both sides and her only defense, when she does fail, has blame cast upon her, or makes the wrong or ill-advised choice, is that of,  “It wasn’t my fault.” Nothing is ever Harding's fault and herein lies the genius of I, Tonya. There is a lot of stuff where that question of, "Why are you the way that you are?" would apply to Tonya's actions, but the moment we're all here for (which the film hilariously acknowledges), the moment of Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) getting her knee bashed in comes to pass as an event Harding herself was hardly aware of. A blip on the radar of her life in that particular moment making the ultimate consequences Harding pays for these actions she's only tangentially connected to that much more devastating.

I, Tonya reminds us of Harding's skating accomplishments and not just the antics she was associated with off the ice.
© 2017 - NEON
By baiting the viewer with these hilarious, almost caricature-like people in the beginning Gillespie knows what he's doing as the arc of Rogers script comes to be that of making the audience realize they are the judges in the least metaphorical way possible. We are the judges because we immediately judge these people or make assumptions about them because of their seeming intelligence level, their line of work, their use of language, their lack of respect for a system that never let them in, etc. but as the film carries on and the viewer comes to care about these characters and, again, sympathize with them-specifically Harding herself-we come to realize these are real people with real emotions and that we despise those judges, the people we were acting like, for denying a girl a dream she deserves based solely on her parent's income and her choice to skate to classic rock rather than classic Bach. When a movie can not only be relentlessly entertaining, but also make one aware of something within themselves there is something to be said for its power and power of persuasiveness. This may not be a reaction for all, maybe I'm just an asshole who was taught a lesson watching a movie about Tonya Harding, but I find it hard to believe that there won't be more people than not laughing at these characters for the first hour before realizing that what comes to pass is a result of years of abuse and patterns in behavior that have come to dictate the only life our protagonist knows and therefore knows no better. Like I said, it's truly tragic.

And nothing highlights this tragedy more so than Harding's relationship with Stan's Gillooly. Gillooly was both the first person Harding went out on a date with while also being the guy that turned this first romance into another abusive relationship in Harding's long-line of physically and mentally abusive relationships. As Gillooly, Stan disappears into the role and becomes this person entirely, a person who can't stand to be without this woman, but when he's around her-can't stand the woman she is. It is in the case of Harding and Gillooly's relationship and eventual marriage that Harding does the rare thing of taking the blame. Her mom hit her and her mom still loved her, why was it any different with Jeff who would apologize with empty promises every time it happened? If this was such a recurring theme in her life it must have something to do with her and not everyone around her, right? Robbie is more or less a revelation in her titular role, physically and psychologically, as she walks this line of a woman prescribing to what she wants to be, having no shame in who she is, and the dynamics produced from each with those in her life on either side of the line. It is multiple cadences throughout varying degrees of a life as Robbie portrays Harding from the age of fifteen up through about twenty-four, in the aftermath of the Kerrigan incident and through to the candid interviews. Janney steals every scene she's in as she gets the showiest role of the bunch, while the MVP of the film is Paul Walter Hauser's Shawn Eckhardt who is so delusional as to think we're indebted to him because his first instinct was to advise Gillooly against dating Harding therefore preventing anything that happened and anyone from talking about them today; as if the path that was taken was the preferable one. Honestly, Hauser should get a supporting actor nomination for his work here right alongside Lil Rel Howery. There are shortcomings, of course, but the most glaring of such is that of the pacing and tightness of tone that lags somewhat in the middle section, but that the film recovers from so well in the third act it is hard to hold against it. I, Tonya is a movie that plays to all its strengths in terms of the type of movie the story of Tonya Harding was always meant to be, but that it makes some kind of sense out of this fascinating cultural event and figure is where the film really excels; allowing its unconventional approach to set the record straight on someone whose ambitions were always cut short by others presumptions.