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Robbie skates through a troubled life in ‘I, Tonya’

| Friday, January 19, 2018

Dominique DeMoe

Tonya Harding is ready to tell the world how it all really went down. “I, Tonya” tells the true-life story of the former U.S. Olympic figure skater, culminating in the infamous Nancy Kerrigan knee-smashing incident. Based on real interviews with Tonya, her mother (Allison Janney), her ex-husband (a devastatingly likable Sebastian Stan) and her former bodyguard (Paul Walter Hauser), director Craig Gillespie pieces together Tonya’s life from childhood to the aftermath of her banishment from all figure skating associations. From her first skating lesson at 3 years old, the film dives deep into Tonya’s relationships to show how they shaped her journey to becoming an infamous Olympian.

It’s a factual, biographical sports movie, but “I, Tonya” does everything to lean out of biopic and sports cliches. While the narrative of Tonya’s life is told linearly, these moments are intercut with interview clips of the characters years after the Kerrigan incident. It almost feels like watching the movie with the characters themselves. The interviews also create a sense of Tonya being an unreliable narrator of her own life, as everyone seems to have a different version of the same story. Gillespie also included a few moments when narrative Tonya addresses the camera directly. The movie, like Tonya herself, is irreverent and reckless in the best possible way. “I, Tonya” is totally aware that audiences are drawn to the spectacle of Nancy Kerrigan having her knee smashed in at the order of Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn, but it refuses to hand the moment over without fleshing out everything that led up to it. It’s certainly not a lazy movie, which is what makes it a particularly challenging one.

Margot Robbie is spectacular as Tonya, fully capturing the grittiness of the skater’s allegedly abuse-filled upbringing. Robbie puts her range on display as she exhibits Tonya’s difficulty to balance her dark, lower-class private life with the glamour and money of elite skating. Robbie draws the audience in for the entire 121 minute run time with her vulnerability, particularly in scenes detailing the physically abusive relationship Tonya had with ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. Robbie’s Tonya is individualistic, yet completely dependent on others, incapable of shame for her tough roots, yet yearning to be included in a sport that just wants to shut her out. The latter is hilariously exemplified when Tonya’s coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson) tells her mother that Tonya should have a fur coat to better fit in with the other skaters and present an air of normalcy to the judges, so Tonya’s father makes her one out of squirrel pelts.

The balance between the moments that make you feel just a little bit queasy and the moments that are laugh-out-loud funny is one of the biggest strengths of “I, Tonya.” The stellar supporting cast provides lots of the laughs — particularly Janney in her Golden Globe–winning performance as Tonya’s mother, LaVona Golden. Janney is an absolute hoot as the stalled-out, five times divorced waitress who pushes her daughter to Olympic stardom, both emotionally and physically. Janney is incredibly self-aware in her performance, creating a sense that LaVona sees all of the missteps in Tonya’s life before she makes them.

The film ends with a montage showcasing Tonya’s short-lived boxing career following her banishment from figure skating; this feels a little bit out of place, but it does a great job of demonstrating Tonya’s willingness to do whatever it takes to become someone different than who she really is — whether that’s by sewing her own skating costumes and wearing a squirrel coat or getting her lights knocked out and her blood spilled in the ring. Tonya’s never going down without a fight, and it’s that tenacity that makes “I, Tonya” such an honest and enjoyable watch.

 

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