Review: ‘I, Tonya’, Margot Robbie Takes The Gold As Tonya Harding

*NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Middleburg Film Festival.* 

Olympic figure skating can be exciting, but it’s not supposed to be as exciting as it was in 1994. And it had little, if anything, to do with who had the best short program on the ice. It was about who had bashed poor Nancy “Why!?! Why!?” Kerrigan’s knee just before the U.S. Championships, and the ensuing scandal became the hottest criminal kerfuffle of the ’90s. OJ Simpson who? For that brief moment in time it was all about Kerrigan’s rival, Tonya Harding, a powerful but unpolished skater from the wrong side of the tracks, surrounded by a bunch of bumbling goons right out of a Coen Brothers movie. Harding, whose actual involvement in the attack is in dispute, paid the price anyway, but her story has only ever been a punchline. Well, it still kind of is in the pitch black, wildly enjoyable I, Tonya, but at least Harding is getting to have her say.

She really wants you to know that it wasn’t her fault.

More on that later, because so much of I, Tonya rests on the shoulders of Australian star Margot Robbie, who gives a perfect 10 (or 6.0 in ISU scoring) performance in the first role that doesn’t demand her sex appeal. In fact, Harding’s lack of grace and femininity is what makes her such a pariah in the sport of figure skating, which trades on outdated ideas of what a proper woman should look like. Harding, from whitest of white trash corners of Oregon, can probably fix your car better than you can. Her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), a soul-crushing dictator who snuffs out cigarettes as much as she does dreams (but she loves parakeets, apparently), introduced Tonya to skating at a young age, simply to get the girl to shut up about it. When her eventual teacher Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) balks at the idea, LaVona won’t take no for an answer. That stubbornness would become ingrained in Tonya, as well, which would cause her further problems, especially when she starts dating Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a local tool and the dimmest of dim bulbs.

Based on the “irony free, wildly contradictory” interviews with the major players in Harding’s life, you begin to think these people escaped from an episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. In the best work of Craig Gillespie’s (Fright Night, Lars and the Real Girl) career, the film is done in mockumentary style, not only examining the colorful, utterly ridiculous characters Harding was surrounded by, it also highlights all of the ways in which figure skating is an absurd sport. Tonally, it invites you mock them and figure skating in the way Drop Dead Gorgeous crushed beauty pageants, or Christopher Guest’s movies skewered…well, everything.  And there is plenty to laugh at, but not the way the sport’s strict guidelines and ancient morals helped keep Harding down when she already had enough to contend with at home. Certainly, Gillooly turned out to be no less abusive, both physically and mentally, than LaVona had been.

It’s a balancing act as risky as attempting a triple axel, but Gillespie lands it beautifully, embracing the silliness of the story and the sadness at its edges. Even when cartoonish figures like Gillooly’s delusional wannabe secret agent pal Shawn Eckhardt (scene stealer Paul Walter Hauser) take the spotlight they feel organic to the crazy world Gillespie has us in, one where tabloid TV rag Hard Copy (fronted by an oily Bobby Cannavale) takes the lead introducing us to the 24-hour news cycle.

As for the attack on Kerrigan (played in brief glimpses by Caitlin Carver), the film does eventually get around to it, painting the whole thing as one big comedy of errors. Whether Harding really knew anything about what her husband and his band of idiots were planning..well, if you hear it from her she didn’t know a thing, but the script smartly treats everybody as unreliable witnesses. The only problem is when it gets too cute for its own good. That Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers managed to make the flashback/interview style work is practically a miracle, but they go overboard when Harding starts addressing the audience directly. It’s a distraction in the few times it happens, and yet it’s doubtful the film would’ve worked at all if it happened more often.

So was the attack on Kerrigan, and the eventual fallout that led to convictions and an eventual banishment from figure skating all Harding’s fault?  While Harding spends most of the movie deflecting blame, and the film goes some way in excusing her a little bit, she makes a lot of really terrible choices that let it happen. It can’t all be blamed on her crappy childhood, and she’s at fault for letting idiots like Gillooly and Eckhardt into her life. But does that make her the villain she was so frequently portrayed as, and is still portrayed as, in the media? I, Tonya may not change your mind whether she was complicit, but that’s not really the point. Tonya Harding was often called a rebel, simply for daring to be herself and not what the powers within the figure skating community wanted her to be. And isn’t that the kind of lesson we’d expect from a champion?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5