By Daniel Howat
I, Tonya skates the fine line between tragic and funny. It’s a tricky move, a tough balancing act of tone, but the film nails it and sticks the landing.
This is no ordinary biopic. It’s brash, it’s crude, it’s hilarious, and most importantly, it’s unreliable. Tonya Harding’s story is told from multiple perspectives, featuring “interviews” from the main characters. They contradict each other, they even mock each other. The audience doesn’t know what to believe, but it doesn’t really matter.
Harding is one of the most interesting villains of the nineties. The film covers bits and pieces of her upbringing. It’s all really sad: the abusive mom leads to the abusive boyfriend. Everyone tells her she’s worth nothing off the ice. Every character is abusive or destructive in their own way. A more traditional biopic might have stuck with the heartbreaking elements alone. Thanks to strong performances and fantastic editing, we feel both the tragedy and the inherent humor in Tonya’s story.
Margot Robbie’s Tonya is gritty, devastating, and pathetic all at the same time. “That wasn’t my fault” becomes her mantra. The funny thing is...I believed it the first few times she said it. That’s the biggest strength of her performance: even when I knew I shouldn’t, I believed her. It’s because she believed herself. She believes she’s a victim.
Other characters interrupt the story and to contradict Tonya’s version of things. Her husband says he never hit her. Her mom downplays any abuse that she might’ve inflicted. Who are we to believe?
Yes, her mother is a monster. As LaVona Golden, Allison Janney is spectacularly cruel. She’s cold, heartless, and calculating. It’s a brilliantly ruthless performance.
And yes, Tonya's husband is abusive. Sebastian Stan’s performance as Jeff Gillooly is complex. He truly loves Tonya, but he treats her like dirt.
The MVP of this film, though, is Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt. He steals every scene he’s in as Jeff’s bumbling, delusional friend. Thinking he’s literally an international spy, he orchestrates much of “The Incident” himself. It’s almost too unbelievable until you see real footage of Eckhardt at the end. What a tremendous character, and a hilarious performance from Hauser.
Despite surrounding herself with the worst people, Tonya rises in the world of competitive figure skating. The world seems to be against her, thinking she’s not much more than white trash. But...she’s in no hurry to prove them wrong. She just wants to skate.
There’s a beautiful moment of honesty in one of Harding’s interviews. As the film is covering her early rise in the sport, she tears up. “Sorry, nobody asks me about that anymore.” It’s hard not to let that break your heart. At 23 years old she became one of the most hated people in America. Her entire life is defined by what happened in 1994. It’s undeniably tragic.
The interviews are cut with such precision that they never feel intrusive or out of place. Anytime they interrupt the story it just works, whether as a joke or to enlighten the story. There’s a refreshing disconnect from the story, as these characters reflect on their past. Harding feels fairly open. Golden doesn’t really care what you think. And Gillooly tries to defend (or deny) his every move.
Tonya had so much potential. She was incredibly talented, possibly more so than the women who routinely defeated her. What would’ve become of her had she not been surrounded by abuse and idiocy?
Harding makes bad decisions herself, of course, but the film certainly challenges the audience’s preconceived notions of her. Is she a villain? Is she a victim? Both? There’s no easy answer here. And I don’t think there should be.
You should absolutely see I, Tonya in theaters. It’s hilarious, it’s heartbreaking, but it’s always real.
Final Score: 8/10