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TIFF Review: I, Tonya – “The best turn of Margot Robbie’s career so far”

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If you grew up in the early nineties, there was no person more vilified in the media than Tonya Harding.  Well, until O.J. came along anyway. The year of 1994 was a busy one for scandal.  Even in my early teens, I remember feeling horrified, seeing the beautiful skating princess Nancy Kerrigan in a sobbing heap on the floor after an attack on her knee potentially ruined her career and chances at the 1994 Olympics.  Such an attack was placed squarely on the head of her rival Tonya Harding – for what better narrative is there than good vs. evil?  When Kerrigan recovered and was to meet Harding head to head on the ice, the ratings for their program at the Olympics soared.

But every villain has a backstory, and I, Tonya is just that tale.  Based on actual interviews with those involved,  the film zips back and forth between recreations of these conversations and the story they create.  And while the film is largely darkly comedic, make no mistake that there is unforetold drama and violence at its core.  Tonya (Margot Robbie), a young skating prodigy grew up in an unstable household with a monster of a mother, LaVona (Alison Janney), married an abusive man, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and lost everything she ever worked for in an incident that made her a household name for all the wrong reasons.

If that doesn’t sound like enough abuse to wear, there’s another aspect to this story that is brought to the forefront: that Tonya, a self-proclaimed “redneck” just doesn’t fit the ice skating stereotype.  She isn’t polished.  She doesn’t have the right costumes.  As one judge tells her, she just doesn’t have the wholesome American image, especially one that can be representative at the Olympics.  Tonya, who performed the first triple axel by a woman in competition was by all accounts one of the best.  As she puts it, “Why can’t it just be about the skating?” It’s made evident that it is about so much more.

Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) had a true challenge making a cohesive story through the changing narrative techniques here and for the most part he succeeds at doing so.  I, Tonya at times feels satirical and over the top, but the darker aspects at its core always seem to ground it just when you think it might be pushing the envelope too far.  The film is at its best, however, when telling the life story of Harding. Once the ‘true crime’ nature of the Kerrigan incident is its focus the film starts to falter slightly and feels a little uneven.  Yet even then his film is bolstered by the performances of its players.

This is by far the best turn of Margot Robbie’s career so far – and there is already awards buzz surrounding her performance of the former Olympian.  She manages to all at once portray Harding as the driven, competitive, ruthless competitor she was but keep her sympathetic at the same time – something Harding really never was painted as in the media.  It should assure filmmakers that Robbie is able to be a leading actor, and almost assures we will start to see more of her in better roles.

Though, as in most things, Alison Janney steals the show when she’s on screen.  As foul-mouthed, “stage mother” LaVana, she brings one of the real villains in the story to life.  It’s easy to see why Tonya truly clung to skating when her abusive mother gave her nothing else to love and Janney drives that home.  With a parrot on her shoulder (yes a real one), the almost unrecognizable Janney makes sure the audience knows that LaVana wants it to be all about her.  Gillespie is smart to give her as much screen time as possible in the film, but even that isn’t enough for Janney’s character who at one point says, “Well, my storyline is disappearing.  What the f**k,” and changes the narrative back to her own.  Janney’s character is a monster, but no one better could have brought her to life.

At the end of the film, Tonya, having lived through all the hardships of her life and having been cruelly dredged through the media after the Kerrigan incident says to the camera, “It was like being abused all over again.  Except by all of you.”  After witnessing her story and all that she had been through, a pang of guilt ripped through me.  Because she is right.  While I, Tonya doesn’t always paint Harding in a positive light, it certainly does remind us that her legacy should be remembering her talent, not her tumultuous finish in the sport.

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