The Tonya Harding biopic succumbs to sanctimony at times, but is mostly a thrilling rush
I, Tonya is built around a couple of interviews conducted with ex-figure skater Tonya Harding (played here by Margot Robbie) and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). The film tells the story of Harding’s bumpy rise to the top of the skating world, which had her enduring abuse from her mother (Allison Janney) and Jeff. And of course, the movie gets into the incident in the run up to the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, where rival Nancy Kerrigan is assaulted during practice, and Harding becomes the subject of a very public spectacle that has her being ridiculed and despised.
The story, which ends up being told from multiple perspectives, becomes an exploration of the elusiveness of truth. The film occasionally breaks the fourth wall, with characters looking at the camera in the middle of scenes, telling the audience directly that something may or may not have actually happened. It’s a compelling approach to telling the story of these people, who continue to have conflicting accounts of their relationships and the events leading up to the big incident. And the film wrings a lot of fun from the acknowledgement that all of the accounts are pretty unreliable.
But it gets a little sticky when the film actually gets serious. A recurring motif in the film is the abuse that Harding endured from everyone around her. It’s a serious matter that’s never really treated with enough gravity, the film a little too quick to move on, a little too eager to get to some sort of joke. The film seems to want empathy for Harding, at one point bringing sanctimony to the proceedings by directly shaming the audience for enjoying the drama being portrayed. But at the same time, the film revels a bit too much in making her out to be ridiculous. The character as depicted on screen never really feels fully formed, the various narrative tricks keeping Harding at arm’s length, hardly giving her the genuine focus needed for the full gravity of her story to come to fore.
Having said that, the film still has plenty of appeal. There’s plenty of cleverness to go around, and not all of it gets in the way of all the interesting issues at the heart of the narrative. It results in plenty of fun, breezy individual scenes that play on the odd dynamics of these characters, who all share the burden of being perceived as low-class outsiders in an alien world obsessed with appearances. The skating scenes are all very entertaining as well, the film able to capture the powerful physicality involved in the sport.
Margot Robbie doesn’t at all resemble Tonya Harding, and she doesn’t seem to be trying to put up an impression. But the performance fits well within the context of this movie, Robbie bringing an earnest bluntness that becomes the core of almost every interaction. Allison Janney is terribly compelling in this movie, but her performance might have been even more powerful if the film could have afforded even an ounce of sympathy for the character. Sebastian Stan brings some interesting nuance in his portrayal of Gillooly, who could have just come out as a monster in this story.
There are a couple of problematic wrinkles to I, Tonya that make it a little difficult to fully embrace. Its themes just don’t hold together all that well, the movie feeling a little unsteady in its attitude toward its subject. In the moment, though, the movie is easy enough to enjoy. The breezy direction, the strong performances, and its open acknowledgement of its own factual limitations often result in bracing, enjoyable cinema. But then again, the movie makes it clear that we aren’t meant to enjoy such things, even as it puts all its resources toward making spectacle out of Harding’s story.
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Rogue.ph. Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.