In the first hour of Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya,” LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) consciously degrades and hits her daughter, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie). The first three times, it feels harsh. After the count increases to six, Janney transcends her typecast as the understanding onscreen mother and becomes what Harding does not call her until the middle of the film: a monster. From the age of four to seventeen, Harding is introduced to and knows nothing but violence from loved ones – even when Sebastian Stan’s Jeff Gilooly enters as her equally cruel and manipulative boyfriend/husband/ex-husband.
At the film’s halfway mark, Harding, known at one point in her career as the “Charles Barkley of figure skating,” stands in the first place perch following a competition and waves to the crowds with a face that reflects our own. We want her to win. And then Robbie’s voice echoes, “I was loved.”
For that line to be taken seriously, an actor must be as magnetic as Robbie. Three words are weighted in meaning. This biopic shares a lot of truth, shows so much pain and makes one feel the humanistic horror in the orbit of a person just doing what they love to do more than anything.
Told through a series of re-enacted interviews with Harding, Gilooly and Golden among others, “I, Tonya” is aware of the narrative it is telling and makes the most of its subtext for laughs, both in a “ha-ha” and dark irony context. Much of the film is spent developing the “incident” that ended Harding’s competitive ice skating career, which many audience members who followed Harding’s career will remember as the breaking of fellow ice skater Nancy Kerrigan’s leg by way of “hitmen” set in motion by Gilooly and his pathetic and borderline delusional friend Shawn Eckhardt (a breakout role for Paul Walter Hauser).
Everyone in the film acknowledges this is what audiences came for (theoretically), and it feels intimate enough to fit in as a cohesive piece in the cinematic styling. Even the soundtrack shifts to correspond with Tonya’s age and her timeline more than passing as an easy reflection of the times.
Ice skating comes in second, if not third, place here. It’s all about how a young woman was molded from the abuse she survived.
Written by Emilie Kefalas.