Movie Review: ‘I, TONYA’ gains sympathy, finds humor in one of America’s most infamous villains

James Cole Clay// Film Critic

I, TONYA

Rated R, 119 minutes
Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale

I, TONYA is loose, loud, messy and one of the most entertaining films of the season, but that word “entertaining” isn’t a slight on Craig Gillespie’s whirling tale of one of the most infamous stories in sports history.

The saga of Tonya Harding has slowly revealed itself for being something more grand that exists beyond the 24-hour news cycle. This isn’t the way the former elite figure skater wanted be remembered. The beauty in this biopic is the fact that everyone is culpable and we’re never quite sure who to trust.

The script came from writer Steven Rogers (HOPE FLOATS, LOVE THE COOPERS) who found interest in Harding  by examining the story from a ROCKY-esque angle told from the perspective of Harding (Margot Robbie), her boyfriend Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) and a cavalcade of supposed idiots. Picture THE OFFICE blended with Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS.

Roger’s script matched with Gillespie’s adept ability to work with all the moving parts allow the story to unfold with spontaneity though the entire country is aware of the outcome. We meet Tonya as a young girl with an uncanny ability to skate at the age of four as she progresses under the guidance of her mother’s abusive behavior, which is sometimes played for a laugh, but what comes after is truly troubling. This is a balancing act of tones as Roger’s script portrays Tonya as a product of abuse by her mother and boyfriend, and Harding turns that anger from the abuse into passion.

Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooli and Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding (photo courtesy of NEON)

Robbie transforms into the athletic build of Harding; she disappears with little makeup and a lot of early 90’s frizz, which is absolutely hilarious. She spars the entire film with Janney. The two share heartbreaking moments together that are heightened to the point of silliness and instantly grounded in the reality of domestic abuse. These two actors are work in tandem to convey some of the year’s finest performances.

This is a story of a lower-class of people that rarely “earn” screen time in Hollywood; that’s probably why this film was made independently and picked by NEON, the new film distribution company from Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League. Folks from the wrong side of the tracks rarely get a voice that permeates into the consciousness of American pop culture. However, as comical as some of the moments are in the film, these are real people though the tone is winking.

The style of I, TONYA is front and center. It takes a team working across several departments to make a film like this work fully. The acting is top-notch and the editing is wondrous as the story unfolds using tricks to bring a cinematic flare. The writing has an unforgivable bite and Gillespie’s direction subverts ALL expectations.

Somehow Harding gains sympathy. This isn’t a story of a life lost, but she could have been so much more and that is the real tragedy. This is about as American as it gets. The saga of Harding is now a legend that will continue to transform from villain to victim.

[Grade: B]

I, TONYA opens in limited release today.

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