I, Tonya opens in true mockumentary fashion. Before we ever get a glimpse of Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, we hear her hacking up a little smoker’s cough. Then we’re informed that what we’re about to see is “based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” From there, we jump into the introductions. First, we watch as Tonya (Margot Robbie) lights up a cigarette in a worn, little kitchen while looking defiantly into the camera. Then we cut to Jeff (Sebastian Stan) sitting in what appears to be his daughters’ bedroom complaining that a boom mic is hanging a little too close to his face. He’s immediately annoying and Tonya’s immediately relatable. Finally, Tonya’s mother appears on screen. LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) has a parrot on her shoulder and she’s talking to him, cooing almost. She calls him her sixth husband; she insists he’s the best of them too. And so, we roll into this adventure on a wave of laughter that stems from something of a sad reality.
That’s pretty much the overall tone of the movie. More often than not, we’re watching something awful: physical abuse, emotional abuse, manipulation, disappointment and pain. However, when we’re watching all that malice and anger play out, we’re often doing it through the mockumentary’s campy filter. Jeff beats Tonya repeatedly while her mother tells her that she’s stupid for letting a man hit her. It’s a tough thing to watch but less so when you have Tonya looking directly into the camera, spitting out biting remarks about how things “really happened,” even if what really happened sounds infinitely worse.
LaVona starts out by telling us what Tonya was like as a kid. She describes her as something of a princess despite having grown up poor. It was LaVona that pushed Tonya into figure skating, introducing her to her first trainer, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). It’s clear from the start that Tonya has always possessed the raw talent and determination that made her a world-renowned skater. With Rawlinson’s help though, she wins her first competition six months after that initial meeting at the ripe old age of four.
LaVona and Diane have Tonya practicing most hours of the day, so she spends an insane amount of time at the ice skating rink. It’s at the rink that she meets Jeff. Jeff takes Tonya out on her first date and endures all of LaVona’s nastiness. At first he’s great but then the physical abuse starts. Despite getting straight punched in the face, Tonya marries Jeff. In addition to raw talent and determination, Tonya has a lot of sadness in her life. Strife seems to be her only constant, well strife and skating. Sadly, Tonya eventually has to do without the competitive skating because she’s banned from the sport for life on account of her husband sending a guy to bash out the knee of her #1 competitor, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). I, Tonya isn’t just Harding’s story. It’s Jeff Gillooly’s story and LaVona Golden’s story too. All three of them give their version of events and we get to watch all three versions play out, laughing so we don’t cry. Sounds super depressing, right? It is and that’s why Craig Gillespie (Director) cuts through all that negativity with a heaping dose of dark comedy. It’s the sugar that helps all that medicine go down.
Margot Robbie is impressive as Harding. Robbie’s performances is delightfully aggressive in every aspect. Just when you start to think it’s a bit too much, you remember who we’re talking about and then it feels like authentic Harding coming through. Allison Janney is despicable, hard and vulgar as LaVona. Janney steals every scene she’s in and manages to make a most despicable character relatable and sometimes even endearing. Craig Gillespie pulls together a lot of tragic little pieces, punctuates them with what feels like inappropriate laughter and leaves us to decide who is telling the truth about what. I, Tonya is a delightfully jarring look into the lives of some of America’s most infamous and how they came to be. Gillespie’s approach is refreshingly and fast-paced. Unfortunately, when the story shifts focus from Harding to the Olympic knee-bashing incident, it loses a bit of momentum. By the end of the movie, however, Gillespie, Robbie and Janney manage to bring the story back to full speed.