Written by: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney
When recalling an event, especially a much-derided one, it can be quite tempting to tell it in a way of self-absolving for those involved. An instance of self-preservation and trying to save face. However, it allows for a continual degradation of the actual truth and it becomes a concept I, Tonya has no problem messing with in such an entertaining manner. Certainly not a typical biopic and thank goodness for that.
Recounting her past, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and other integral members of her life look back at the rise and precipitous fall of the ice skating genius from the way Tonya stuck out leading up to the incident with Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). Each character gives their perspective of the past, often clashing with what others have said.
Admittedly, as someone who is too young to fully know the story of Tonya Harding when it was occurring live for everyone to witness, the name of this woman has remained in such infamy. The media has truly made this woman a punching bag and for better or worse, this film gives a well-rounded depiction of who Tonya was in the past, and most importantly, what she loved to do more than anything, which is skate. Even with all of the drama and ridiculous nonsense occurring in the story, the film never truly loses sight of this integral aspect. Tonya, no matter what was going on in her life, always loved to skate.
This started from a very young age and if any doubt remains, it gets vanquished in one of the later scenes in the film displaying one of Margot Robbie’s best moments, of many, in this feature. Natural talent showed itself very early in regard to skating and it only developed later in life to show her accomplishments. An asset of this feature comes from the way it breaks down the importance of what Tonya achieves as a figure skater. Very much a niche sport, the way the film breaks down the importance of Tonya attempting and then joyously landing a triple axle nails down what made it such a momentous moment for her. Additionally, it shows the incredible amount of talent Tonya had to succeed, which got impeded by many factors, including the political machinations of the skating association.
While this feature definitely has a bend towards being more sympathetic with Tanya, it does not shy away from acknowledging she had a hand in her own eventual downfall through her own decisions. However, not all of it lands on her, which includes how she was never going to be the ideal of what the skating association wants as a representative of the country on the world stage. Most of this had to do with the class division between Tonya and the other type of girls and women who compete in this sport. Inelegant with cheaply sewn together costumes, Tonya very much represented the working class person trying to break into a sport where mostly privileged individuals could pay for success. The film makes no mistake, essentially directly stating Tonya never had a chance, which made her brief rise to the top so unlikely and incredible to witness. She had everything pulling her back from success but was still able to make it to the top even if for a very brief time.
The dueling perspectives of this feature does plenty to show the hubris of the individuals involved in Tonya’s life, which includes her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan), and several others. Mostly what gets filmed comes from the recollection of Tonya but the interviews set with these individuals looking back states on several occasions where they refute the assertions. This appears very much in the abuse Tonya received both in an emotional sense from her mother and physically from her ex-husband. It becomes very difficult to admit to others on-camera how badly you treated someone it turns out. Through this storytelling convention, the truth gets muddled, for sure, but the way each character contorts the narrative allows for a fascinating look into their true personalities. Washing away any pretense, what they admit to versus what they outright refute allows for some incredible reading between the lines.
With her making a splash into Hollywood in a supporting performance in Wolf of Wall Street, Margot Robbie received this opportunity to portray Tonya Harding and delivered a stunning performance. She made it very clear she was here to stay as a star and the levels she works in within this feature breaks down the persona of Tonya in the effort of showing humanity. Robbie works through the unbridled moments of joy as well as the pain of having certain aspects of her life she loves the most being stripped away. The complexities of portraying this character sets up quite the challenge seeing as Tonya’s story played out for the entire world to see not too long ago, but Robbie stepped up and owned this role.
Getting to the truth never truly matters in I, Tonya as the feature hits its heights when focusing on the woman behind the controversy. Through it all, this narrative shows a woman who lived with plenty of abuse, but none of it mattered as long as she could get on that ice and skate. Even with the several horrible obstacles standing in her way to success, she showed her talent, and the history she made can never be taken away. This film, rightfully, does not seek to absolve but just display, which serves it right.