I, Tonya may be the perfect movie for America right now. The story of an impoverished woman, the victim of near constant abuse, is an unfortunate mirroring of our current state both metaphorically and literally. I, Tonya is essentially two hours of Tonya Harding losing, whether it be her choice in a husband or her circumstance with her cruel mother. But, it’s punk rock brilliance is in watching this beaten woman pick herself up over and over again until she gets her chance to rise up to the top of a sport that epitomizes white middle class. For a brief moment Tonya Harding was the best figure skater in the world, and it was a big ‘fuck you’ to the upper crust of America. But, it’s also about how the world could tear someone like Tonya Harding down. This is why director Craig Gillespie chose to give Tonya Harding’s story, and why the audience so eagerly believes it.
Her mother, LaVona, played by Alison Janney is a horror show of a mother who’s convinced herself her constant abuse made Tonya a champion. Janney’s performance is intense and although her comic timing is impeccable, there is inhuman cruelty in her every word. The only decent think LaVona does for her daughter is when she puts her on the ice. Her jealousy of her daughter’s success bubbles over several times, she even pays someone to heckle her own daughter at an event.
Not long after her mother sticks a knife in her arm, Tonya triple axels her way into the arms of her boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Harding and Gillooly are very much the same; both are poor kids living on the scrap heap of American poverty, just barely getting by. One even gets the sense Jeff came from a broken and abusive home as well, but while Tonya took her aggression out in her skating, his only outlet became Tonya. Gillooly is such a toxic force in her life it’s actually shocking it took him as long as it did to meddle in her career, eventually bumbling his way into destroying it. He gets help from his buddy, Shawn Eckert (Paul Walter Hauser) a walking stereotype, a delusional man-child living with his parents. Hauser plays this up with a subtle comic flair, but even Shawn, with all his levity uses Tonya’s success to feed his ego in coming up with the plan to take out Tonya’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan.
I wasn’t certain if Margot Robbie was the best choice for the role of Tonya Harding, but she quelled any doubts early on with her physicality and strength. Robbie bullies her way through the film, never holding back an ounce of energy, her most poignant moment coming during the Lillehammer Olympics. For Tonya, it’s the moment where the pressure of performing under the stress of not only the controversy swirling around her, but the judgmental eyes of the audience. Tonya looks right back at the audience in this moment, holding a mirror. It’s the uncomfortable high point in a film full of uncomfortable moments. It’s the heartbreak finale on a long and bumpy road.
In some ways I, Tonya is the modern day Rocky film, but she’s more than just an unlikely hero in this story, she’s flesh and blood, and her victimhood is real, making her triumphs all the more sweeter and her falls all the more painful. The film poignantly ends with the real life performance of Tonya Harding so we could see the brilliance before it was unceremoniously—inevitably pushed aside.