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In telling the story of Tonya Harding, a figure skater famous for both her impoverished background and the 1994 attack on her rival’s leg bones, I, Tonya promises to be a fun, frothy biopic. It’s true that the movie has plenty of entertaining swearing, chain smoking and regrettable fashion choices. However, like the fixed, beauty queen smiles of the girls on ice, these trappings mask something a lot darker.
Staged to camera interviews with the main players initially set the scene. Jumping around, the narrative proper begins with young Tonya taking to the rink for the first time under the steely glare of her abusive mother (Allison Janney). From there we hop around, as director Craig Gillespie tells us a story about a deeply damaged person venting all her anger and ambition into the unlikely world of glammed up athletic pageantry.
There’s a giddy energy to how Gillespie strings the story together. Split screens, time jumps and plenty of fourth wall breaking abound. Naturally there is fun to be had gawping at dodgy facial hair and listening to a soundtrack culled from the hits of the era and the filmmakers take full advantage of this. As mentioned already, though, there are plenty of razor blades in this candy apple. Janney plays a character so villainous that she’s likeable in a Sheriff of Nottingham kinda way. That is, until she repeatedly crosses the line into straight up abuse. After Tonya has moved into the house of boyfriend Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan); a man who is sometimes adorably dopey and sometimes physically abusive, we get a scene where they are having make up sex. Margot Robbie’s voiceover acknowledges that we’re probably wondering why she stays with a man that sometimes hits her then while she’s fucking him Tonya turns to camera and says “Well my Mom hits me and she loves me so…” It’s knowingly and monumentally disconcerting.
To I, Tonya‘s credit it doesn’t merely ping pong between surface goofs and dark edginess. There are moments that are genuinely touching. From her father doing the necessary, grisly work to give his daughter a DIY rabbit skin jacket to Tonya’s desperate trapped pleading when she realises her career may end, the movie isn’t shy when it comes to matters of the heart. It’s a dark comedy, yes, but, fucked up as it is, not one that feels in any way empty or inhumane.
I, Tonya is also just hysterically funny. The ‘plan’ to put a rival out of commission makes the incompetents of the average Coen brothers movie look like the protagonists of Heat. The cast all give wonderful performances that walk the line between comedy and empathy. Paul Walter Hauser, as Jeff’s idiot mate Shawn, may be the exception. At first he plays such a cartoonish loser that he feels like he walked in from the set of Napoleon Dynamite. While he’s not-at-all like a real person he works as both comic relief and an infuriatingly oblivious villain of sorts. Robbie is wonderful, as she is in everything, and Sebastian Stan, best known for Marvel movies and associated slash-fic gets to flex his comedy muscles. The Academy may well be rewarding Janney with a shiny, bald statuette for her portrayal of a hopelessly toxic mother.
Initially the recurring interview format promises a kind of he said/ she said Rashomon type of storytelling which the script then jettisons. The wrap up after the main event also feels a little abrupt. Who cares? I, Tonya is, if nothing else, incredibly entertaining.