In the early 90s, I loved watching ice skating. There was Tonya Harding, a “local” girl to us Northwesterners, who seemingly scratched and clawed her way to become one of the top U.S. skaters. Her athletic skills were undeniable. To see her prep in the seconds before a huge jump with grim determination, before exploding into the air in a spin, was a marvel. And it was also delightful that she was so scrappy. Her presence made it clear that the judges were a bunch of snoots that looked down their noses as the self-proclaimed (at least in the movie) “redneck”. She didn’t have the toity look, poise, and glamour of an ice-queen like Nancy Kerrigan. And when the 1994 “incident” happened, with Nancy getting clubbed in the knee at practice before the Olympics? Heck, you couldn’t make up tabloid drama so crazy. The media and public ATE. IT. UP.
I, Tonya cobbles together the story behind Tonya Harding, based on the “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly”. The cast of characters would be outrageous if they weren’t true. There’s Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Harding’s famously mustachioed ex-husband who orchestrated the attack on Kerrigan. There’s the stone-cold nightmare of a mother, LaVona (Allison Janney) whose flinty gaze is only softened by the constant haze of her chain-smoking. And there’s Tonya’s “security guard” aka Gillooly’s old buddy Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), a self-proclaimed international espionage expert who lives in his parents’ basement.
Anyone who watches this film will most likely come with the expectation of seeing a dark comedy involving the swirl of these characters, and how they committed the crime that rocked the skating world. What surprised me about I, Tonya is that the first half of the film, establishing young Tonya’s rise as a competitive skater, would be so depressing. A poor girl from the Portland, Oregon burbs, she couldn’t afford the fancy costumes that were standard for skaters. She’s told that she needs a fur coat (which in itself shows the classism of the sport), so her dad (while he is around) skins hunted rabbits so that she can have one. Little Tonya’s stubborn pride while wearing the rabbit coat, while marching past the suspicious looks of her peers, says it all about how tough she had to be.
If that didn’t break my heart, I, Tonya portrays how she grew up in a world of domestic violence. If it wasn’t her mom smacking her around (after dad left), it was the first man she dated, then married young, Jeff Gillooly. There are countless black eyes, smashed skulls, bloody noses, and even gunshots to establish this in the film, and I had a hard time seeing any of it as dark comedy. Sure, once the second half, and the plotting of the “incident” got rolling, it is easy to play for laughs. But the unevenness of tone between the halves made me squeamish.
What I, Tonya succeeds in doing with its inarguable great performances is humanizing the young woman who was made into the villain of the 1994 Winter Olympics. As they say in the movies, Americans love to hate, and boy, was she fun to hate. There is a point where Robbie looks directly at the camera as she is applying her garish, theatrical makeup for her Olympic skate. She is crying, either from stress, or fury, or adrenalin, as she furiously rubs the makeup into her cheeks. Then she smiles, the bright fake smile of the ice princesses… but there is lipstick on her teeth, and her eyes are wild. It is an indelible image, and you can’t help but feel for the girl. And it that sense, Tonya herself finally wins with this film.