By: Arlene Allen
I will never understand the thinking behind the release schedules of some movies. I, Tonya was initially released in a limited run on December 10th in “select cities.” I’m sure this has something to do with awards timing, but as a film reviewer this can be frustrating. I, Tonya has since opened in several other major locations and will finally open worldwide on January 5th. I had heard only the highest of praise for this film and raves about Margot Robbie’s performance. In fact, the film was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards including Best Picture: Comedy or Musical, Best Actress for Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding and Best Supporting Actress for Allison Janney (winner), who plays Tonya’s loathsome mother. So, I went into the theater expecting a lot. I, Tonya delivers, in spades, and then some.
This is a brilliant pseudo bio-pic of former figure skater Tonya Harding and the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan in 1993. It starts with Tonya as a child, growing up poor in Oregon with a pushy, abusive mother LaVona (Janney, in one hell of a performance) and a father (Jason Davis) who teaches Tonya how to shoot, hunt, take care of cars and to be self-sufficient. He’s driven off by LaVona, who should have won some kind of award for horrific physical and mental abuse. Tonya is saved by her love of skating, but even then she doesn’t fit in. Her body build is different, she’s poor, she’s aggressive and often mean to her competitors. It’s no surprise that when Jeff Gillooly (a remarkable performance by Sebastian Stan – he really should have been nominated for a Golden Globe as well) shows up, Tonya embraces him as an escape from her mother – although unsurprisingly he turns out to be abusive as well.
What follows is a story that should have been made up by the Coen Brothers. There’s tragedy, of course, is the abuse Tonya suffers, but it’s also made clear that she was incapable of taking any responsibility for her own actions. Her lack of education never served her well and her aggression and ambition made her objectionable to fellow skaters, coaches and judges. I’m not sure how accurate the film is as a bio-pic – the opening title card makes this clear – but Tonya was definitely guilty of surrounding herself with dumb as dirt people. “They’re all boobs,” says Bobby Cannavale as “Hard Copy” reporter Martin Maddox. It’s so easy to laugh at them, if it weren’t for the fact that they created such an underlying tragedy.
Gillooly finished high school and had college paid for already, as his dad was Air Force and had passed away when Jeff was young. He was a driver for special needs kids when he met Tonya. How he became so abusive is never discussed, but his relationship with her bordered on insanity even after they divorced. He had the stupidest friends on the planet as pal Shawn (played also terrifically by Paul Walter Hauser) lived at home with his parents and fancied himself a bodyguard and a counter-terrorist expert. And in case you think this is beyond far-fetched and crazy, there’s a clip during the credits of the real Shawn giving an interview where he states he’s an expert on counter-terrorism. Seriously, even the Coen Brothers couldn’t make this stuff up. It was Shawn’s idea to go from simply scaring Nancy Kerrigan, to carrying out an actual attack (perpetrated by two of the dumbest criminals on the planet who probably deserved Darwin Awards).
This is just such an incredibly complex, well acted and splendidly filmed piece of work. I loved how the film ratio changed when the characters told their stories, giving a retro docudrama feel to those scenes. It’s a mind-blowing story and the performances are just – wow. Margot Robbie is incredible and unforgettable as Tonya. Robbie has stated in interviews that she didn’t set out to be the actual Tonya Harding, but that she was playing a character named Tonya Harding. She became friends with Harding during the making of the movie, which may or may not have contributed to the brilliance of her performance. Sebastian Stan, a chameleon of an actor if ever there was one (if you’re looking for Bucky from the Marvel movies, you’re not going to find him), is wicked as both the good and quiet Jeff and the insanely abusive Gillooly. Allison Janney is simply astounding and scene stealing as Tonya’s beyond despicable mother. Plus, McKenna Grace shines as young Tonya. It’s an exceptional little piece in the film and Grace looks to become one of the top young actresses of our day.
There’s also quite a bit of social commentary here and I’d be remiss not to mention it. Tonya was judged for being poor, stocky and uneducated by those around her in the skating world from the time she started competing. Her costumes were hand sewn, often not as flashy as her competitors. Her choice of music irritated the judges. If it weren’t for the fact that Harding had such talent and landed that triple axel, she would have been driven out of competing long before 1993. She wasn’t the wholesome image the US wanted to project to the world. Then, of course. there’s the issue of abuse, both parental and spousal, and how hard it is to escape the cycle. The abuse scenes are brutal and, trust me, no one is laughing then.
All in all, this is a film I cannot recommend highly enough. It’s listed as one of the best pictures of 2017 (because of those select city releases) and I would wholeheartedly agree. I will also add I, Tonya is probably one of the best pictures of 2018. This is going to be a tough act to follow.