I, Tonya: On Thin Ice

FITTING IN IS OVERRATED. 

After watching a documentary about Tonya Harding, the Olympic figure skater who in 1994 was banned for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association after a violent attack against her competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, screenwriter Steven Rogers became fascinated. He arranged interviews with Harding and her former husband, Jeff Gillooly, who had orchestrated the assault on Kerrigan, and realized that they disagreed on many of the facts of the case. They told different stories.

Rogers, who wanted to write a screenplay, decided that the best approach would be to acknowledge that – the story about Tonya Harding’s life would have testimony from many people and they would be allowed their say. It’s up to us in the audience to decide whom to trust, and when.

We first meet Tonya when she’s four years old. That’s when her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) takes her to an ice rink and convinces coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) to train her, even though she’s too young. Over the years, Tonya becomes a sensational figure skater but is constantly struggling in her attempts to combine a rough, unpolished working-class background with the refined attitude of the figure-skating world. At the age of 15, Tonya meets the man who will become her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and he becomes her ticket out of the abusive relationship with her mother. Unfortunately, Jeff also turns out to be violent, even if Tonya does her best to retaliate, having picked up a thing or two from LaVona.

After becoming the first female figure skater in the U.S. to complete two triple axel jumps, Tonya looks set to triumph at the 1992 Winter Olympics…

Passionate about disliking it
Director Craig Gillespie, who broke through with the black comedy Lars and the Real Girl (2007), has together with Rogers used a similar approach in this depiction of the tragic events leading up to the 1994 Olympics in Norway. I, Tonya received very positive reviews in general, but those who disliked it were passionate about it – in their view, all this film does is look down on its protagonist and invites the audience to laugh at her and the working class she hails from. I disagree. Sure, there’s plenty to entertain us here. This is an absurd story and the characters, especially Tonya and her horrible mother, are such larger-than-life characters that it’s natural to see tragedy and comedy in harmony.

There’s one scene I didn’t like, a cutaway to LaVona who wonders what happened to her storyline; that’s an example of when the fun crosses a line and becomes too smugly self-aware. But other times when characters break the fourth wall are far more effective and bring home the point that we can’t trust everything we see here; events are always told from somebody’s perspective and they can be fabricated or exaggerated to make someone else look worse. Did LaVona hit her daughter frequently? Perhaps. Did Tonya fire a shotgun at Jeff? Perhaps. Believe what you will. We never cease to be intrigued though as the film moves breathlessly through Tonya’s life.

This is Margot Robbie’s finest performance to date; she’s funny and engaging, and her Tonya is even moving whether or not we believe everything about her. Janney won an Oscar as the comically abusive mother; it’s almost too much of a caricature (we never learn how on earth LaVona became this hideous creature), but Janney still offers glimpses into her psyche. I also enjoyed Bobby Cannavale as a gossipy TV producer and Paul Walter Hauser as Gillooly’s ”bodyguard” who’s built a life of lies.

I, Tonya 2017-U.S. 120 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Tom Ackerley, Margot Robbie, Steven Rogers, Bryan Unkeless. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay: Steven Rogers. Cinematography: Nicolas Karakatsanis. Editing: Tatiana S. Riegel. Cast: Margot Robbie (Tonya Harding), Sebastian Stan (Jeff Gillooly), Allison Janney (LaVona Golden), Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser.

Trivia: The story was also told in a TV movie, Tonya and Nancy: The Inside Story (1994).

Oscar: Best Supporting Actress (Janney). Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (Janney). BAFTA: Best Supporting Actress (Janney).

Quote: “You fuck dumb. You don’t marry dumb.” (Janney)

Last word: “Talking with Margot about [the abuse] and trying to figure out how we’d do the violence – I didn’t want to shy away from it because I thought it really informed Tonya’s actual journey, the reason that she is the way she is, the defensiveness she has, and her attitude toward violence. When we looked at interviews with her talking about it, it almost seemed like she was so numb to that cycle of abuse. Trying to do it in this tone was tricky, and one of the devices we came up with was to actually break the fourth wall in our first domestic violence scene, to show how she can disassociate herself from what’s happening in the moment. She’s almost immune to it.” (Gillespie, Vice)

 

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