SEE IT! – “I, Tonya” is a dark, comedic and satisfying retelling of Tonya Harding’s life leading up to figure skating’s greatest scandal.
1994. Tonya Harding vs Nancy Kerrigan. A moment referred to in this film as “the incident.”
Kerrigan’s knee was bashed in by a police baton moments after her practice time, just days before the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.
Craziness and chaos followed as authorities began their investigation. Tonya Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was eventually named as the mastermind behind the attack, but the damage to Harding’s reputation was already done. After her 8th place finish in the ‘94 Winter Olympics and banishment from the sport for conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers, she was no longer the same beloved public figure.
I remember it all as a punchline, only seeing these names in a variety of skits and shows throughout my childhood, being too young to understand anything that happened.
But “I, Tonya” strips all those preconceived notions away.
From the start, you quickly see that a young Harding (Maizie Smith) never had it easy.
Growing up in Portland, Oregon, her smoking, alcoholic, abusive and profanity-speaking mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), brings her daughter to the local ice rink to train. At first, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) refuses to train her because she’s too young.
But as soon as Harding steps on the ice, Rawlinson is smitten by her natural talent and obvious happiness while skating.
As Harding (McKenna Grace) continues to perfect her skating routines, she gets violently abused and shoved off a chair (by her mother), cursed at (by her mother) on the rink until she pees herself and laughed at by other skaters when she doesn’t have the “right” type of fur coat.
Also, her parents separate and her dad leaves. Grace’s heart-wrenching performance makes it clear that the people closest to Harding don’t provide a healthy support system.
Fast forward to her teenage years, we learn that Harding (Margot Robbie) dropped out of school to practice full time, reinforcing her belief that skating is all she has, all she is. She constantly puts all her energy into skating, into being the best in the sport and becoming the first female figure skater to land a triple axel.
It’s at this time in her life that she also catches the eye of Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Initially, their relationship is incredibly awkward, yet somewhat sweet, but it soon turns into an endless cycle of abuse, apologies, forgiveness and more abuse.
And this is when the movie really shines.
Harding’s whole life has been a basic game of she said-he said and this film plays along with that, never really giving a clear answer as to what really happens — with any of it.
Throughout the movie, there are consistent breakaways to fourth-wall-breaking-interview-type situations with Harding, Golden, Gillooly, and others in the story, all based on real-life interviews.
In one scene we see that when she moves in with Gillooly, he starts to beat her on a daily basis. But does he really abuse her like she says? There are bruises that can prove it, but he claims she tried to shoot him… to which she replies to the audience, “This is bullshit,” while simultaneously pumping a shotgun.
It’s such a fun, yet provocative approach to storytelling. By constantly causing the viewer to think about what they’re seeing, they have to decide whether what’s on screen is the truth, an embellished version of it or completely exaggerated — all reinforcing that we can never truly know what’s going behind-the-scenes in any one person’s life.
Other highlights to point out include the soundtrack, with music choices like “Barracuda” and “Dream a Little Dream,” and a super-talented supporting cast, especially Janney, who is wonderfully terrifying as Tonya’s mother, LaVona.
But for me, the film skillfully drops the comedic tone for a moment of clarity. There’s a scene where Robbie, as Harding, speaks directly to the audience and makes it known she believes we’re also her attackers, no better than the people who helped bring an end to her career.
To be honest, it made my stomach drop.
Not to say we know what happened because we don’t. Not to say that Tonya didn’t have a hand in her own life because she did. But too often athletes, celebrities and public figures have to deal with the ridiculousness of fame.
After all the abuse she endured, the hours of practice and the suspected dismissive treatment by the professional skating organization because of their distaste of her whole lifestyle and background, she became the first female figure skater to land a triple axel. She successfully competed in the Winter Olympics twice, but still, her rise to fame had a hell of a price.
Further, this incident no longer feels like a punchline. Despite whether you believe Tonya set out to hurt her rival, Kerrigan, and planned the attack, this film shows that she’s a human being who’s overcome what was the single most defining moment in her life at one time.
One last tip?
Watch the credits.
They include several clips and interviews with the real people behind the characters in Harding’s life.
Why was it satisfying to see these real interviews? Realizing, with incredulity, that these ridiculously terrible people helped ruin Harding’s career… allegedly.