What a delightful surprise! The film’s trailers had left me cold , but “I, Tonya” may just turn out to be one of my favorites of 2017. Its title “I, Tonya” assuredly reflects “I, Claudius” in the plotting, scheming, and poisoning arena. More than a “mockumentary”, this superbly fresh film forces us to rethink our initial judgments on the event that banned Tonya Harding from ever again competing on ice.
Steven Rogers’ screenplay is pitch-perfect. And the same can be said of Craig Gillespie’s seamless directing. The tension build-up shows all the ways to disable people, making us as sympathetic to Harding as we were initially to her Olympic teammate, Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 when she was purposely kneecapped. We are all implicated in our talk show laughter at “trashy Tonya”, and while Tonya is never glamorized or completely exonerated in this film, she is shown as the abused, feisty underdog~the polar opposite of the reigning figure-skating elite.
Though five inches taller than Harding, Australian actress Margot Robbie captures the fiery swagger and spirit of a little girl with ice princess dreams. Robbie, herself an amateur ice hockey league skater, was helped by skating doubles Heidi Mungy and Anna Malkova. Visual effects and actual footage of Tonya’s routines also serve to bolster Robbie and celebrate the beauty of the sport.
The film does not move chronologically, but begins with interviews. Flashbacks serve emotional purpose. One by one, the principals tell their truth, or not. Most alarming is Allison Janney’s portrayal of LaVona Golden, Tonya’s mother, for which she won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress with Cruella De Vil flair.
Not since “Mommy Dearest” has a birth mother shown such villainous disregard for the well-being of her child. Yet, until the final coup-d-etat, she believes she is raising a strong, self-sufficient child with her “hair brush and knife throwing methods”. Her scathing admonition to Tonya contributes to her portrait as a rancorous bitch: “ You fuck dumb: you don’t marry dumb.” The irony is not lost coming from a women who has had six husbands. Tonya is the fifth child of husband number four.
On the ice at three and a half, Tonya (here Maizie Smith) proves her mettle and wins the coach who will drive her to be the first American woman skater ever to do the triple axel. The talented McKenna Grace has a few extraordinary scenes where she plays the eight to twelve year-old Tonya. She will steal your heart as she did in “Gifted” (2017).
Robbie, while a standout and worthy of the Oscar here, has an awkward time playing a fifteen year-old (as does Sebastian Stan as Tonya’s boyfriend, and soon to be husband, Jeff Gillooly. ) Putting braces on Robbie’s teeth did not erase the years, or Robbie natural poise. And Jeff’s, “You Like food?” for a first date icebreaker seems forced. LaVona accompanies them to the diner, by the way.
Domestic violence, guns, and alcohol all play out with lawyers, restraining orders and reunions. The tone of “laugh til you cry” is modulated to have the viewers’ emotions roiled. It works big time. Director, cast and writer mesh to amazing effect.
Margot Robbie’s face is unforgettable as she applies her blush-like war paint before high-stepping it onto the ice. She is a powerhouse in purple.
Julianne Nicholson plays the sensible coach, Diane Rawlinson. She is a foil to the sleazy and the irrational; yet, she demands that Tonya play the game for her second chance: drop the metallic blue nails and the unconventional music, spit out the gum, watch the foul-mouth tirades, and ease up on the cigarette smoking. Tonya’s asthma inhaler is often seen on the ice. A favorite close-up shot is of her skate blade slicing the butt of her tossed smoke.
The score is well-matched from “Dream a Little Dream of Me” to “Barracuda”. The last shots of the 2003 Tonya being punched in the boxing ring are horrendous. When she states that “violence is what I knew anyway”, we get the irony. She had become a punching bag, spitting blood as blue-collar scrapper, and staring at us from the mat’s surface.
Gender, class and politics, all play a role in mirroring and satirizing a fallen star, her associates, and the expectations of the era.
Shawn Eckhardt, the “bodyguard” and delusional emasculated male, is another sad, damaged character. “None of my women get the last word.” , he chortles as he stuffs his caramel corn into his mouth. As the perpetrator of much of the racketeering, psychological warfare, and assault, actor Paul Walter Hauser eases naturally into the role. Docu-drama never looked easier.
Bozos hanging out at “The Golden Buddha” at the stroke of midnight fuel the humor. One only wishes that virtual reality gaming might keep RL ( real life) safer for the next generation. With avatars there may be less infiltrating in the real world. Shawn’s brags of being four steps ahead of the FBI. And Tonya mimics her own mockers as she smirks: “ a secret agent who lives with his parents”. As the lyrics are sung “ How can you stop the sun from shining, how can a loser ever win”, viewers will think that the disgraced Tonya won with this movie. And we will think that we did, too: A must see.