With Strange Plot, ‘I, Tonya’ Stands On Performances


I, Tonya, based on the true story of the rivalry between ice skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, is a fascinating, often funny tale that tosses the usual “underdog somehow wins” or “the underdog loses but turns things around” scenarios on their head. Focusing on the strange and tragic career of Harding, it creates a kind of apologia for horrifically bad behavior. The story itself is so wild and weird that if it hadn’t actually happened, we would never believe it.

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was not a typical ice skating princess. Pushed insanely hard by her abusive waitress mother LaVona (Allison Janney), she was a girl from the other side of the tracks. She was incredibly athletic, the first woman to do a triple axel (leaping in the air and spinning three times before landing perfectly on the ice) in performance. But she lacked the polish of many of her opponents, and judges often lowered her grades because of that. Her frustration, combined with the pushing she got from her mother, led her to an early marriage to Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who added to her problems through domestic violence.

Although Gillooly had far more charm than LaVona, who never seemed to give an encouraging word to Harding. He would be the ultimate cause of her downfall. Hanging out with a group of losers, he reacted to Harding’s complaints about her unfair treatment by judges, a truly justified feeling, by looking toward her greatest challenger, the genteel ice princess Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). Ironically, Kerrigan barely plays a role in this story except as the alpha to Harding’s omega. Harding hires a coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), to not only help her skating, but also to “princess her up.” Yet Harding remains the underdog.

After receiving a threatening letter that throws her off her game, Harding thinks about doing the same to Kerrigan, but her idiot husband decides to go further and have a few of his friends hurt Kerrigan. They smash her knee, but she is able to compete in the upcoming Olympics. Although Harding claimed she had not known of the attack before it happened, she did not report it, and she was banned from the sport for life. She never lost her underdog title.

The movie moves quickly, almost recklessly, through Harding’s life, adding a sort of biographical lunacy through quickie news flashes. What makes it work are some incredibly strong performances. Robbie shocked a lot of people by stealing the Suicide Squad movie, but here she gives a marvelous, nuanced performance. She even manages to tone down her spectacular good looks in creating a tough, competitive athlete. Somehow, she makes it all work, and after a bit you actually see her as not as pretty and feminine as the other skaters. It is one of the best performances of the year.

But even that performance is almost overwhelmed by Janney’s work as the mother. It is not easy to keep a role that is almost completely unsympathetic from getting away, but Janney does it. She is both scary and real. Stan manages to radiate charm in a role of an abusing loser. Nicholson, as always, is charming.

The film centers not only on Harding’s downfall because of her husband and friends’ antics, but because she did not fill the contemporary image of what she should be. “She looks like she went out and chopped wood this morning,” Rawlinson complained to LaVona. “She did go out and chop wood this morning,” was the reply. By looking at the structure of the game, the class attributes, Harding becomes the underdog, the person to root for despite the actions taken against Kerrigan.

Did Harding know about the attack on Kerrigan in advance? The film never answers the question. It seemed vitally important 25 years ago, but now the whole thing seems changed in a world where not only gender roles but gender itself has become fuzzy.

So you can sit back and enjoy this story, so weird that it would not be believed if it hadn’t actually happened. It is reported that Robbie at first rejected the script, saying it was too crazy to be real. She and others turned it into a film worth seeing, even if only for the performances.