I, Tonya tells the story of figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and her involvement in the eventual attack on competitor Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). But, the film goes deeper into Harding’s upbringing by her mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), her relationship with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and her uphill battle against the figure skating institution.
And frankly, all of that is far more interesting than what you’ll probably come to the movie to see.
History Is Written By Winners, but What About the Losers?
I, Tonya asks a very point-blank question: what is the truth? The narrative that built up around Tonya Harding was one that painted her as a villain. She was a disrespectful and belligerent outsider who tarnished the prestigious sport of figure skating.
But, life is never as black and white as we like to perceive. I, Tonya reframes the story and paints Harding as an abused but determined outcast who believes that her talent should supersede any other aspects of her character. And she clearly has the talent.
Margot Robbie brings incredible humanity and sympathy to a person who was turned into a focal point of hatred by a ravenous press and the court of popular opinion. It’s Robbie’s best performance to date and the movie deserves to be seen just for her. She’s backed up by a solid cast — especially Allison Janney as her cruel mother — and their devotion to making these people feel genuine elevates so much of the story.
Humor, Heart, and Hate
There is also a strong funnybone that props up the film. I, Tonya isn’t afraid to highlight the ridiculous behavior of its subjects. Particularly, the men in Tonya’s life are portrayed as incompetent, violent, and downright stupid. Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) is unbelievably dumb but the movie backs up their version of him with actual footage of him lying about some pretty insane stuff.
Through this all, I, Tonya never loses track of why we like Tonya. She might be abrasive but she’s also immensely talented, driven, and completely sympathetic. She is the beating heart of the story and her perspective changes the entire way you will look at her.
And that’s important because there is anger at the core of I, Tonya. By the end of the film, that anger feels justified. I’m not going to spoil anything but you can look into the actual historical events if you want to see how things played out. It’s heartbreaking and will make you see things in a very different light. That alone makes the film a success.
A Shaky Landing
But, I, Tonya does have its flaws. The backstory of Tonya’s career in figure skating and her goal to be recognized and beloved is far more interesting than everything surrounding “the incident” with Kerrigan. Once that section comes into play, the movie suffers from pacing issues that it doesn’t quite recover from.
The most noticeable issue revolves around the big figure skating sequences. In order to showcase actual skating talent, the filmmakers decide to have an actual figure skater perform the routines. But, they digitally plop Margot Robbie’s head onto the skater and the results are more miss than hit.
Is I, Tonya Good?
There is a moment in I, Tonya where the title character relates her treatment by the press and public to her lifetime of abuse at the hands of those who were supposed to love her. It’s a segment that justifies the entire film. We’re so ready to paint people as either victims or monsters, and this film dumps every shade of grey onto the canvas while giving the audience an unapologetic middle finger in the process.
I, Tonya is a wickedly funny and equally depressing piece of cinema that has a lot more on its mind than most fluffier biopics. Though it suffers from some significant issues, it still packs a wallop and will leave you reconsidering just why we needed this woman to be so hated.