Hot Take: The faux documentary is even funnier because it’s a real faux documentary, if that makes sense. As darkly comic as last year’s The Bronze but thanks to a more worthy (and real) subject matter, it sticks the landing.
Is I, Tonya being condescending to its main character or sympathetic? After watching, it’s very easy to draw the conclusion that it’s being both as the Tonya Harding biopic we never knew we wanted but absolutely needed deftly chooses to not pick a lane and tell the story from all angles. I, Tonya tries to piece together the wildly different tellings of the Tonya Harding story from multiple perspectives culminating with the infamous attack on skating rival Nancy Kerrigan. Director Craig Gillespie does an excellent job of balancing all of the stories as pieced together by “wildly contradictory” interviews done about Tonya’s life and times leading up to the incident.
Tonya is played expertly by Margot Robbie. You don’t expect the stunning Robbie to find the spirit and scrappiness of Tonya Harding but she nails it like Harding does the Triple Axel. Robbie is in your face from start to finish and embodies the feel of Harding even if it she can’t ever get to the look of Harding, no matter how hard she tries. But embodying the character serves a much more important part in the telling of the story and its why I, Tonya has such an authentic feel. Allison Janney plays LaVona Golden, Harding’s mother, and gives what will likely be worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The crass and monstrous Golden has a number of cringe-worthy moments thanks to Janney’s edgy, unforgiving performance. In addition to these two, Sebastian Stan adds a solid performance as Jeff Gillooly and is aided by Paul Walter Hauser’s side-splitting and scene stealing performance as Shawn Eckhardt, Jeff’s best friend and Tonya’s bodyguard.
The film, for the most part, let’s the audience decide. It occasionally paints Tonya as a victim but also as the culprit which silently asks the audience how culpable is Harding in all of it. It’s really hard to say and eventually, you get the feeling you know where Gillespie stands but writer Steven Rogers makes sure to not let the audience off the hook that easily. For example, numerous times it is depicted that Jeff was physical with Tonya but there’s never a time where Tonya wasn’t physical back and, in a few depictions, she was the aggressor. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction but Rogers spent time with both Tonya and Jeff writing the story and because of their wildly opposite tellings, he chose to tell both sides of the story instead of just one. No one comes out of the telling unscathed. Not even Tonya who could have been painted as a monster, an opportunist or a sympathetic figure but instead, Rogers chooses to be Switzerland in the matter and allows the audience to make up their own mind.
I, Tonya is the rare Indie film that has a wider appeal. Especially in this day and age of reality television, a faux documentary where characters consistently break the fourth wall and tell wildly different tales of the same incident seems to have perfect timing. Both Robbie and Janney absolutely kill their performances and should receive plenty of consideration in the Oscar nomination process for their tremendous performances. You can tell Robbie holds no disdain for Tonya’s choices and the movie never slips into parody because of the closeness Robbie has with her subject. It’s both brutally honest and deeply fabricated at the same time because it can’t all be true but it’s definitely faithful to how the storytellers remember it.
I, Tonya is a lot of things but it’s never boring. Even if you’re deeply familiar with the story (unless you’re Nancy Kerrigan) and watched everything there is to watch about the Harding story, I, Tonya will still add something new to the tale. Even if it’s just bringing to life the multiple sides of the story. Currently, I, Tonya sits in my top five films of 2017 and it is highly unlikely to budge with so few “must see” films left on my unseen 2017 list. Come Oscar nominations, it would be unsurprising to see I, Tonya skate to numerous nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and possibly more.
Biopics are fun especially when they are told and not just re-told. Plus, it’s damn funny!
You’re Nancy Kerrigan and you already lived it once.