Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), I, Tonya is more than an electrifying portrait of a disgraced icon and prodigal athlete. Though uproarious in its uniquely comedic recipe and, at times, reckless in its downplaying of a true life laden with a history of abuse and trauma, I, Tonya explores the evolution of the American Dream — deferred and deep-fried.
The film adopts a dizzying “mockumentary” structure that jumps from confessional interviews to scripted asides that break the fourth wall, and various retellings of real-life events. “I never did this,” Harding says, looking at the camera while cocking a shotgun. Harding is played by a de-glamorized Margot Robbie, who delivers a sensational performance that speaks more to Harding’s resilience than her appearance — something real-life Harding struggled with as her love of over-processed hair, garish lipstick, and ZZ Top were problematic for the wholesome image of the figure skating community at large.
I, Tonya is purposeful in its fact-versus-fiction formula, yet provides ample ammo for a choose-your-own-adventure-style tale of white trashdom. And Steven Rogers’ (Hope Floats, P.S. I Love You) screenplay is masterful in helping us understand what led to what the film refers to as “The Incident.”
The film introduces us to a side of the Tonya Harding story that is less familiar than the infamous knee-bashing of fellow skater and teammate Nancy Kerrigan during practice at Cobo Hall in 1994, ahead of the Olympic Games in Norway: namely, Harding’s abusive relationship with her chain-smoking, alcoholic, knife-throwing mother, LaVona Golden (played by a remarkably merciless Allison Janney).
Janney portrays Golden as an unloving mother from hell, subjecting Tonya to nightmarish displays of physical and emotional abuse. Harding’s early years were riddled with embarrassment (like being forced to pee her pants on the ice because a bathroom break would eat into her rink time and having to wear her skating uniform to school picture day so her mother could skimp on competition headshots). “You skated like a graceless bull dyke,” Golden scolds after a performance. When the film cuts to the “documentary” footage of Golden, she is seen wearing a fur coat while smoking a cigarette, an oxygen tank at her side and a parrot on her shoulder — claiming she did the best she could.
Enter Jeff Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan). Here, Harding swaps one abuser out for another in her teen years when she chooses to move in with her boyfriend (and eventually, her on-again, off-again husband) — and also one of the perpetrators of “The Incident” that marred Harding’s bright future.
A saccharine and docile Kerrigan (as she is portrayed from a distance in the film) was a skilled skater in her own right and fit the bill as an ideal candidate for America’s top Olympian — real girl-next-door material. Meanwhile, Harding was the girl smoking cigarettes in the alley behind the girl next door — except Harding could land a triple axle and was the first American figure skater to do so (a fact the film rightfully belabors because, as shown in a slow-motion shot of the nearly impossible maneuver, it’s fucking impressive).
“Nancy gets hit and the whole world shits,” a puffy-faced Harding says to the camera in her confessional mockumentary setting, a humble kitchen with a seemingly permanent pile of dirty dishes in the sink behind her. “For me, it’s an everyday occurrence.”
Though the film flirts with truth and non-truth, toggling between he-said, she-said contradicting accounts of what may or may not have happened, Harding isn’t wrong here. But for Harding it was never about what was right or what was wrong, or who was for or against her. It’s made clear that Harding would always have to work twice as hard even though she was twice as talented — another example of cruel and systematic prejudice.
While the film seems to exhaust its brand of acrobatic levity by the time “The Incident” occurs, perhaps focusing a bit too heavily on self-proclaimed “expert of counterterrorism” and Harding’s dimwitted ex-bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), I, Tonya manages to tighten its laces when addressing the real criminals — us.
“You’re all my attackers,” Harding says, addressing the audience from the kitchen. Twenty-three years later and we are still spectators of and participants in the downfall of a real person who still really exists.
It’s a rare moment where the film’s distracting use, at times, of outrageous acts of violence, obscenity, and white trash-ery takes a backseat and reveals the wear and tear of serving as both a hometown punching bag and America’s favorite punchline. Harding is seated in front of a mirror before her botched Olympic performance. Beneath a shaft of uneven florescent light, the camera lingers on Harding’s mouth wincing between a rink-ready smile plastered in a too-dark plum lipstick and complete collapse. As she presses a blush stick over her cheekbones, she bares her teeth and raises her head before bursting into a momentary bout of tears. She regains control and steps onto the ice. She placed eighth.
“There’s no such thing as truth. I mean it’s bullshit!” Harding declares in a chilling voice-over. “Everyone has their own truth and life does whatever the fuck it wants.”