I, Tonya lands a solid triple axel as an entertaining film
When American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan had her knee bashed by an assailant prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics, the story that unfolded almost immediately became a comedy of errors.
The people involved in the attack were so inept and unsophisticated that they soon became a parody of themselves. Already, they seemed like characters dreamed up for a movie, which might be one reason it's taken 23 years for their story to be told in movie form.
In I, Tonya, Margot Robbie takes on the titular role of Tonya Harding, a figure skater whose less-than-privileged background made her an underdog her entire life.
From growing up under the thumb of a cold and abusive mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), to living with a volatile and abusive partner, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), to being looked down upon by virtually every skating authority for her outfits and music choices, Harding had to fight many uphill battles. But her skating skills, especially her ability to complete the notoriously hard triple axel, led her to succeed despite those obstacles.
That synopsis makes Harding’s story sound grim and depressing, but the film, directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers, approaches it with a much lighter tone. They acknowledge people’s bad behavior and rightly call out those who act in monstrous ways, but because much of Harding’s life and the people in it could be considered ridiculous, they’re also treated as such.
Gillespie and Rogers use a mock interview style to have the main characters look back on events. The interviews, combined with the outlandish events themselves, make for a relentlessly entertaining story. Those who recall the attack and its aftermath may think they know what happened, but the film still presents the situations so that each turn feels fresh and invigorating.
While there is much to mock about the story, especially someone like “bodyguard” Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), the filmmakers make Harding into a sympathetic figure. Tabloid stories and odd choices she’s made (boxing, anyone?) over the years have turned her into a one-dimensional person, but the film attempts to show how unfair that perception may be, even if she did make plenty of mistakes.
Robbie and Janney's performances carry the film. Robbie doesn’t especially look like Harding, even with frizzy hair and bangs, but she inhabits her essence, especially as a skater. Janney steals the movie, delivering her often brutal lines in hilarious, deadpan fashion. The woman she’s portraying is as unlikable as they get, but you won’t be able to get enough of Janney herself.
I, Tonya is far from your typical biopic, and it’s all the better for it. Buoyed by sharp, fun storytelling and Oscar-worthy performances, it’s exactly the type of movie this story deserved.