“Me? No, I’ve never smashed a kneecap”– Tonya Harding, potential kneecap smasher
Early in the film, Tonya’s mother LaVona (a delightfully nasty Allison Janney) compares Tonya to a flower; herself she calls a gardener. With the right gardener, a flower can bloom into someone special. But Tonya, played by a pitch perfect Margot Robbie, needs a flame to bloom. Luckily her first love, Jeff, is an inferno, fueling and hurting Tonya in equal fits and starts.
The film follows the drama surrounding Tonya Harding, an American figure skater infamous for potentially being involved in the attack of her greatest rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya needs to be the best skater; she repeatedly says it’s all she has, all she’s good at, all she is. There’s a sense throughout I, Tonya that anyone could explode at any moment and ruin it for her. Whether that’s her lashing out at a perceived slight, Jeff’s unpredictable rage or LaVona’s casual cruelty, any one comment could send Tonya over the edge. I, Tonya is a great film, balancing severe characters and a complex story with a competence, grace and humour that makes it a joy to watch.
I, Tonya delights in the fact that none of the real-life people it features agree on one story; everyone often contradicts everyone else. Because of this, most filmmakers would hesitate to create a definitive narrative for such a murky subject, but director Craig Gillespie seems to enjoy it. In fact, there are several sequences where the characters themselves doubt the reality of that they’re doing. One scene sees Tonya chasing her husband out of their house with shotgun blasts while telling the camera this totally didn’t happen. This playfulness doesn’t subtract from the overall seriousness of the film, however. When things get serious, when characters are truly at each other’s throats, the film works well.
Most of the emotional lifting is done by the terrific acting – everyone is great, with Allison Janney standing out in every scene she’s in. The story itself is surprisingly poignant, shining a light on class differences that pervade the world of figure skating. Tonya is clearly a fantastic skater, yet she struggles to be recognized due to her unstable home life and generally unrefined style.
The film isn’t perfect, however. One moment of (probably) unintentional hilarity occurs early on when the narration says “I was fifteen…” followed by a shot of a clearly fully grown Robbie. Before this, the film uses appropriately aged child actors, so this moment is jarring and weird. In fact, the entire timeline is pretty hard to follow, as Robbie looks the same throughout the entirety of her time with Tonya, from age 15 until her mid-20s. It’s hard to judge her age for the entire film. This isn’t too important, luckily, and I soon forgot about the earlier confusion.
The other major problem is the CGI: there isn’t that much, but it’s bad when it’s there. Obviously Robbie can’t be expected to be as good a figure skater as Tonya Harding, yet she has to be on the ice. So when Tonya starts to really skate her face becomes some weird CGI approximation of Robbie’s. It looks so strange, like noticeably bad – and it slightly ruins certain shots of the skating. Overall, however, it’s not huge deal.
I can easily recommend I, Tonya. It’s a dark story told with compassion and humour that’s anchored with great performances and a sweet soundtrack. Front to back, it’s worth your time.
I saw I, Tonya with the Sackville Film Society. Like them on Facebook for screening updates!