I, Tonya, despite some faults, is an energetic and extremely well acted biopic of a notorious central figure who entered our lives at the onset of the tabloid world we live in. Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), on one hand, defied incredible odds and utilized her figure skating talent and boundless drive to become of the sport’s best for a brief period. On the other, she allowed her not always charming demeanor to get in the way. The challenge of the screenplay from Steven Rogers is balancing a want to sympathize her while also acknowledging the subject’s own fault with events.
Harding grows up poor in Oregon with a real humdinger of an abusive mother played by Allison Janney, in a real humdinger of a scene stealing performance. Mother LaVona gives Tonya plenty of emotional issues, but also her severe and rather unhealthy competitive spirit. When the skating prodigy enters her teens, she falls for another abuser Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). It doesn’t take much for Tonya to adore him after he seems to be the first person to say anything nice to her. That doesn’t last for long.
The picture is told with narration from the main players, reportedly with the actors simply repeating their real life counterparts words. Robbie’s work is impressive. She may not totally resemble the title character’s physical presence, but she embodies her often frustrating personality. Stan is memorable as the clueless but also monstrous husband. And a special shout out goes to Paul Walter Hauser as Jeff’s friend and Tonya’s “bodyguard” Shawn. Like Janney, he pulls heists on sequences he appears in.
I, Tonya seems to know that we’re waiting to get to the part we all know – the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan and the bungled aftermath of it. As in the real life fury and frenzy when it was happening in 1994, Kerrigan is mostly seen and not heard. We do witness the criminal enterprise behind the kneecapping where the stupidity of the culprits would struggle to be believable in a fiction work.
The film succeeds in helping explain how Tonya became Tonya. How much you feel for her will likely vary by the viewer. One thing is abundantly clear – she doesn’t think anything that’s happened to her is her fault. This is essentially her mantra.
I, Tonya can feel too over directed by Craig Gillespie and too frenetically edited for its own good at times. Yet the actors and the deliciously improbable story that drew the nation’s fixation one winter make it a winner overall. The real Tonya Harding would certainly claim the credit for the movie’s high points. The parts that don’t completely succeed? Not her fault.
*** (out of four)