Film Review – I, Tonya

Margot Robbie produced and stars in this very entertaining if slightly uneven biopic about the figure skating scandal of 1994 between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. I found it to be a funny, poignant and rather timely look at just how far stupidity and bad decisions can go when left unchecked. It’s not great, but it is very good.

I thought the early-90’s period white trash setting was well rendered, complete with bad fashions and bad hairstyles. It’s a story about losers who achieve more than they can really handle and how flailing their attempts at control can be. At first you kind of like these lovable underdogs but they very quickly show their ugly sides and so you have this interesting balance of sympathy and schadenfreude as events unfold. It’s also about abusive relationships, from toxic family and romantic entanglements to the intrusive media fueled by the insatiable appetite of the public for falling stars in the emerging 24-hour news cycle landscape.

I think Margot Robbie does a great job and she delivers the second-best performance in the movie, but top honours go to Alison Janney for stealing every scene she is in as Tonya Harding’s overbearing mother-from-hell. Sebastian Stan also shines in a surprisingly compelling turn as her loser boyfriend Jeff Gillooly. And I love Bobby Cannavale in anything, here playing a reporter from the 90’s tabloid show Hard Copy relating the broad strokes directly to the camera, as do all the major players from time to time, as if being interviewed for a documentary film. The plot is constructed from their conflicting accounts and there is much breaking of the fourth wall, so the general impression is that these are people who seem to refuse to take responsibility, always looking for someone else to blame for a bad situation.

The tone of the movie is generally light with some dark edges, specifically the abusive relationship scenes, which are abundant. I also found the opening of the film a little rough with some strange choices. I mean, much as I admire Robbie, she is not convincing as a 15 year old Tonya Harding, which is when we first see her take up the role played by young girls in earlier flashbacks. That’s one example of things that don’t sit well at the start but, as I say, the movie finds its feet after about 20 minutes and becomes a slow descent into farce which still somehow comes across as weirdly affectionate toward the people it is portraying.

The figure skating scenes are quite good, convincingly making Robbie look like she’s actually doing all the skating, and the 90’s-influenced soundtrack provides a great backing for the white trash exploits on screen. I liked the underdog qualities of Tonya Harding’s characterization, always bristling against the superficial aspects of the sport which constantly promotes an outdated and wholesome image of femininity, and the film does leave you somewhat sympathetic toward her, particularly in her sentencing which barred her from skating forever – the only thing she really knew how to do. You feel almost on her side as a victim of the antics of stupid people surrounding her, but there’s also the sense that there’s no escaping the bad decisions we make and sometimes you’ve just got to live with them. I like that sense of ambivalence, not knowing for sure which way you should feel about the situation.

I, Tonya is, in my opinion, a good film, not the best movie of the year, but it is worth seeing. It’s ironic yet endearing, funny yet tragic, and I loved everyone in it. I think Margot Robbie is a force to be reckoned with and can’t wait to see what she does next.

Watch the trailer here.