THE DELIGHT OF this movie (apart from Margot Robbie’s and Allison Janney’s compellingly well acted portraits) is that it’s a master-class of tone.
The first delight is that it’s a refreshingly anti-sports movie (And perhaps it needed an Australian -Robbie- to have the guts to produce such). Hollywood continues to force feed its catharsis-hungering audiences with an abundance of sports movies in which plucky underdogs triumph against all odds (and accompanied by soaring scores).
I Tonya is a wonderful round-up of (actual) no-good, staggeringly stupid scumbags who formed the dubious eco system of Tonya Harding’s failed bid to win an Olympic ice skating Gold.
It’s a “bio pic” of Harding’s troubled life leading up to “The Incident” in which her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was assaulted in the run up to the games. Tonya didn’t herself assault Kerrigan, but the shocked world blamed her. That was their truth of the matter. Finally, here was a moment of real, newspaper-selling drama in a sport whose only drama comes from the odd fall now and again.
Though the movie is punctuated by the skating and the competitions (with extraordinary CGI that makes you really, really believe that Margot Robbie is herself an Olympic quality ice skater) its focus is on Harding’s bone poor, red-neck life. As a child, she’s horribly emotionally abused by her mother…an unsmiling, bitter, chain smoking, potty- mouthed harridan, whose idea of encouragement is to denigrate and insult her daughter. (It’s a great role for Allison Janney and well deserving of her Oscar).
Mom’s emotional abuse soon turns physical with Tonya’s boyfriend/husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan, Logan Lucky) with whom she shares a destructive, violent relationship. He cuffs her around; she tries to shoot him; they break up, they make up. She bleeds, masks it with make up and still she skates on, wooing audiences with her 3 1/2 turn pike. Hers is a world of relentless violence.
As she says, “I’ve been beaten up all my life; she (Kerrigan) gets one small touch and the whole world goes berserk”
The narrative flow of the story is tied together with interviews (based on their actual words) of the key players and pitch-perfect asides from Tonya, who turns to the audience from time to time to comment on the action. The characters and their actions are so outlandish, so irony-free, so out of whack with the Happy American Family idea the Olympic committee is looking for, that the heart-breaking trauma and tragedy of their lives is served up in a tone of absurdist, sometimes slapstick, comedy.
The typical Hollywood fare would have played this story for all the gut-wrenching lachrymose drama it could muster. But that would be a false truth. For Australian director Craig Gillepsie (Million Dollar Arm), the truth is more like Theatre of the Absurd. For at its heart, this retelling of the Tonya Harding story is her story…her search for or at least her retelling of her version of the truth. In one of her asides, Tonya says: “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants”
The truth (in life?) is certainly not the typical cliché of “achievement despite adversity”. Truth perhaps lies in the desperate need for the powerful to exercise their power over the powerless: mother over child, husband over wife; even the Olympic committee over its athletes.
I Tonya is also story about the need for love (Tonya dearly wants to be loved…by her mother, her husband, her fans) and the thin partition that separates it from hate. The writing (by Steve Rogers of Kate and Leopold) is very clever. It never caricatures its characters: Jeff is a violent wife beater…but he’s also a man whose ambitions were thwarted by his sense of responsibility to Tonya and who will do anything to help her win (including of course, breaking the law). Tonya’s beastly mother is a person cursed by her inability to express tenderness but whose Dragon-mom’s devotion to her child’s extraordinary talent was clearly an expression of love.
And what a coming out party for Margot Robbie, who up until a year ago seemed just another puff of eye candy (About Time, Focus, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Legend of Tarzan). 2017 was definitely her year…first in Goodbye Christopher Robin and now this, which story she identified and shepherded to production. Robbie manages to hide her radiant beauty completely in the tough, me-against-the-world, battered scragginess of her character. The surprise is that she too wasn’t even short listed as an Oscar nominee.
Let’s see what 2018 brings for her
I, TONYA. Dir: Craig Gillespie, With: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson (Masters of Sex). Writer: Steven Rogers. Cinematographer: Nicolas Karakatsanis. Production Design: Jade Healy (A Ghost Story)