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I, Tonya (A Movie Review)

Updated: Sep 27, 2023


I, TONYA (2017)

Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Mckenna Grace, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Joey Thurmond, Catherine Dyer, Evan George Vourazeris, Joshua Mikel, Heather Williams, Jason Davis and Laura Distin.

Screenplay by Steven Rogers.

Directed by Craig Gillespie.

Distributed by Neon/Miramax. 119 minutes. Rated R.

Screened at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival.

Sure, we all know Tonya Harding. White trash figure skating wannabe who became a short-lived tabloid media darling when her goofball husband and his incompetent friends knee-capped Nancy Kerrigan – Harding’s primary competition for the Olympics. Eventually became so desperate for the public eye that she became a female boxer.

All of these things are true. And yet, as I, Tonya smartly shows, that is not the whole story. Yes, many of her problems were due to her own mistakes, but the truth is Tonya Harding probably never had a shot. Her life was irreparably broke when she was four years old.

The Harding/Kerrigan story was one of the first media sensations. In the early days of the 24-hour cable news cycle, when the internet was also making its first halting steps towards today’s “fake news” (and I’m talking cheesy, exploitative websites, not legit sources like The New York Times, The Washington Post or even CNN), the Harding story fed the beast, at least for a while. It became a reality TV series in real life – the princess (Kerrigan) and the trailer trash (Harding) facing off in the court of public opinion, surrounded by a rogue’s gallery of goofballs and idiots, salacious details, and the tragic apparent ending of two promising athletic careers.

It made for great ratings.

20 years later, most of the specific facts of the Harding/Kerrigan matter are forgotten, but no one who ever saw it has forgotten the video of a sobbing Nancy Kerrigan holding her injured leg crying out “Why? Why?” to no one in particular – and it turned out, to pretty much everyone in the world.

However, as I, Tonya shows us, in its hip, funny and eventually surprisingly touching way, that Kerrigan was not the only victim in this situation. It was also yet another slap in the face in the life of Tonya Harding, a hardened, trashy woman who had nonetheless been getting knocked around since she was a little girl.

Margot Robbie is something of a revelation as Harding. She has always been a good actress, but her lack of vanity and willingness to de-glam herself signifies a dedication to the craft and the character, and the British actress nails Harding’s white trash accent and attitude.

As great as Robbie is in the role, Allison Janney steals every scene she is in as Harding’s mother LaVona. LaVona is a monster, an evil, nagging, self-centered, back-stabbing bitch, but in Janney’s hands she is also one of the funniest film characters in years.

And, despite I, Tonya’s tabloid source material, the film is damned funny, in a very, very black sense. Which I suppose may have been the inevitable way to do this material. A serious look at what happened wouldn’t be possible. This is a story made to be mocked. Yet, as it goes on, it also makes some very serious points about competition and abuse that make you see the whole story in a different light.

At the end of the movie, I, Tonya actually makes you feel kind of sorry for Tonya Harding, a condition you would never expect from her cartoonish reputation. Yes, she was responsible for many of her own problems, but in the long run, the poor woman never had a chance in life.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: October 20, 2017.


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