“America– they want someone to love, but they want someone to hate,” remarks Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) in the darkly comical biopic “I, Tonya.” Most of us vividly remember (or know of) figure skating’s most infamous moment: the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan, orchestrated by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). With everyone under the assumption that Harding collaborated with her ex-husband in order to injure Kerrigan severely enough to take her out of the running for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team, Tonya Harding instantly became one of the most despised people on the planet.
What many of us don’t realize, however, is Harding’s complex backstory, filled with childhood abuse, domestic violence, and greed from those around her. Harding also struggled to meet the rigid expectations for female figure skaters, and, as the movie highlights, often stood out like a sore thumb at competitions. Instead of skating to a calm classical song, Harding once chose the theme from “Jurassic Park.” Rather than being smiley and perfectly groomed at competitions, Harding made her own costumes by hand, had unruly hair, and spoke aggressively toward the judges when they failed to give her a high score not based on her skating abilities but rather on her physical looks. She was often compared to Nancy Kerrigan, the ideal face for U.S. figure skating: a feminine and bubbly young woman with a wholesome American family. Not to mention, she also wore beautiful costumes designed by Vera Wang. While these aspects of Harding’s life certainly don’t justify the attack on her teammate and supposed friend, it is nonetheless fascinating to see a new side of a woman who was so quickly villainized by the press and people around the globe.
Robbie’s performance is magnificent, and despite the movie’s fairly long running time, the audience will be captivated by her screen presence the entire time. Allison Janney, who plays Tonya’s abusive and fame-hungry mother, is equally as fantastic as Robbie, and her Golden Globe win earlier this week was well-deserved. Interestingly, Janney’s character is one of the most comical parts of the movie despite her cruel tendencies. Although her character’s sadistic behavior is definitely disturbing (she once went so far as to pay someone in the stands to boo Tonya in order to motivate her to skate better), Janney’s comedic timing is impeccable.
The film itself was directed by Craig Gillespie, whose past credits include “Lars and the Real Girl” and “Million Dollar Arm.” Although physical violence is at the core of the “I, Tonya” narrative, and Gillespie highlights the delusion, stupidity, and utter absurdity of the men who planned the attack on Kerrigan, he never makes light of the brutality that any woman in the film experienced.
Something else that particularly strikes me about this movie is how seamlessly the filmmaker blends comedy with drama. Normally, when someone thinks of a hitman bashing someone’s knee, there aren’t any laughs– why would there be? Somehow, however, the movie incorporates hilarious, witty dialogue that will make the audience cry from laughter.
If, in between the funny moments, you feel uneasy while watching “I, Tonya,” it’s because the movie informs us quite a bit about ourselves and our own sometimes malicious intentions (going far beyond the scope of Harding and Gilooly’s actions). Toward the end of the movie, right before its tragic end, in which Tonya is banned from figure skating for life and decides to become a female boxer to pay the bills and pay her dues to society after the Kerrigan incident, Harding tells the camera, “It was like being abused all over again, only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers, too.”
While Gillespie obviously sympathizes with his protagonist’s plight, from both reading reports of the event and seeing the film, I personally believe that Tonya collaborated with the others on the attack in some way. However, “I, Tonya” is an excellent film that is far more than your average sports movie: it forces the audience to think and to reevaluate our own behavior and why we, as a society, are so quick to judge someone without knowing the full truth. Also, the action sequences of figure skating, particularly the shots of Harding being the first woman to successfully land a triple axel, are pretty spectacular. Currently, “I, Tonya” is playing at several theaters throughout Los Angeles, including The Landmark and Pacific Theaters at The Grove.
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