I, Tonya: witty cast coasts through the film

Madeline Deabler

How does one determine the truth? It’s a tough question, one made even tougher when given the context of fame, rivalry, passion and sport, but it’s a concept that “I, Tonya” tries to explain while providing an entertaining and superbly acted narrative focused on the infamous figure skater Tonya Harding.

Buffered by strong tonal control and an interesting dramatic structure, “I, Tonya” skates away from the ice almost landing everything, though its thematic purpose and run-time leave a little to be desired.

“I, Tonya” runs the full gamut of Tonya Harding’s now famous life, from her poor and self-described “white trash” upbringing in Portland, Oregon under an absent father and cruel mother, all the way to the end of her figure skating career and beginning of her semi-professional boxing one.

It’s a stranger-than-fiction type of story, one where every twist and turn teeters on the edge of unbelievable. Yet, it’s a testament to the filmmaking on display (and especially the smart decision to tonally craft the film like the director wanted to) that the narrative never seems to lose hold of the audience.

This accomplishment also depends on the truly talented cast, as Margot Robbie (freshly nominated for Best Actress in this role) is magnetic as the eponymous Tonya Harding. She infuses the role with the perfect amount of warmth and humanity while still displaying the drive and determination required to achieve the level of success thrust upon her by her overbearing mother. Robbie is flanked by Sebastian Stan, who plays her duplicitous and violent husband Jeff Gillooly as well as Allison Janney, who (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) portrays Tonya’s terribly demanding mother. These characters are fleshed out somewhat, but they all serve as second fiddle when placed in juxtaposition with Tonya.

The film is presented as a dark comedy laced with tricky questions about the nature of truth and how one arrives there, but this film is more aptly described as a distinctly American tragedy. Given the classical connotation of the word tragedy, “I, Tonya,” has all the hallmarks of the Shakespearean sense of the genre: the rise to fame under harsh circumstances, the inevitable fall from grace, the horrors unleashed (both internal and external) along the way. The film doesn’t shy away from the incredibly tumultuous and tough early life Harding experienced, and how her eventual success and fame didn’t change that.

Her marriage to Gillooly is marked by domestic abuse and assault, emotional manipulation and gas-lighting. Conflicting accounts are both given in flash-forward by an older Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan, but the film’s numerous sequences of domestic violence are brutal and marked by bruises and skin-colored makeup. If it weren’t for the film’s darkly comedic tone, the narrative would have suffocated underneath all of the abuse and regret. Yet, it doesn’t tread on this subject lightly, as the nimble acting quickly inter-cuts these terrible sequences with a gallows-esque humor, never letting the audience linger too long on what’s occurring on screen.

I think this is to the film’s detriment, as if it were too afraid to truly investigate the tragic circumstances that leads to the surreal sequence of events that ends in bashing a competitor’s knee in. Furthermore, the film also misses an opportunity to fully examine how quintessentially “American” Tonya is, and how her poor upbringing and roughshod mannerisms clash directly with the upper-class ideals that are intertwined into the fabric of figure skating. These ideas are briefly touched upon, but they are quickly dropped for another catchy pop song or a character talking directly to the camera, as if to tell the audience that they’ll be quickly back to their regularly scheduled programming.

“I, Tonya,” is an interesting movie — a “Goodfellas” inspired romp through the apparently cutthroat world of competitive figure skating. Given Tonya’s brief flight into fame and the eventual burning of wax on her wings, there’s a rich deposit of material to be mined from the multitude of ideas that encompass her story, especially its distinctly American roots.

For the most part, “I, Tonya” is a successful, funny and incredibly well-acted depiction of this strange narrative. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film “coasted” a bit too much on its (admittedly appropriate) tone and was afraid to fully examine the events that led to the dramatic downfall of this poor woman, including the terribly difficult life that led her there.