When asked to describe Tonya Harding, the disgraced figure skater’s former coach compared her to America, “Either you love her or you’re not a big fan”. Such a binary view of things falls in line with the way culture tends to shape narratives; the hero vs the villain and why not? After all, approaching a subject this way draws clear lines of the delineation, you have one side that the public is supposed to cheer for, the scrappy underdog, the patriot or to borrow a wrestling term the face/hero versus the epitome of villainy and corrupt moral values. It is a structural framework that has been ingrained since our earliest days but the issue that emerges from this methodology is that issues are rarely as binary as the dominant narrative suggests.
This grey area in between those polar extremes is where I, Tonya resides, capturing the rise and fall of Tonya Harding’s life from perspectives drowned out by pop culture’s more attention-grabbing rhetoric. In doing so, I Tonya gives Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) a voice for her to tell her side of the story. From her early days rising past the disadvantages of lower socioeconomic class to becoming a world-class athlete and finally to her downfall in the aftermath of the now-infamous Nancy Kerrigan incident. To hear it from her vantage point, her career (and indeed her life as a whole) was marred by her unconventional upbringing and unfortunate association with the wrong types. A self-proclaimed redneck, Tonya Harding’s persona operates in direct opposition to what her sport represents. Where figure skaters are beautiful, graceful and elegant, Tonya is rough, foul-mouthed and brash. Thus no matter what she did, however many feats she accomplished (such as becoming the first American to ever land a triple axel in competition) she would be forever limited by the proverbial glass ceiling of her circumstance. Always the villain never the hero.
Director Craig Gillespie does not let the sentiment get too far, however, incorporating alternative perspectives beyond that of the titular character’s own. Often contradictory to one another, these recollections taken as documentary-style interviews help to balance the film so it retains its objectivity not swaying too far in one direction or the other. Effectively countering a common issue in biopics, Tonya Harding is not romanticized as a saint. Instead, the multiple angles from which the story is told coupled with the self-interested and unreliable nature of these accounts create a mixed image. How that image is then constructed and subsequently interpreted is left to the subjective judgment of the individual viewer.
While noble in its intent, the dangers of the split mockumentary technique are that it limits focus from the film’s strengths chiefly the performances of Allison Janney who plays Tonya’s mother LaVona. Profane and often with a cigarette in hand (traits passed down to her adult daughter), Janney is the antithesis of Laurie Metcalf’s character in LadyBird. In both cases, there is a genuine concern for their daughters’ wellbeing but LaVona struggles to properly express this through conducive means. As such, her frustrations boil over in explosive (often abusive) confrontations that further strains the mother-daughter relationship. Though the behavior is inexcusable, there does exist some underlying sympathy for her plight as she works tirelessly sowing costumes and paying for private lessons so Tonya can further her development in the sport.
Crucial to Tonya’s arc this relationship informs how she perceives relationships from that point forward. Thus when a young Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan – fake mustache and all) gives her a little positive reinforcement, she gravitates to it. Undoubtedly Tonya sees Jeff as a saving grace, someone who can finally give her that reprieve from her mother but what she will come to find out (and what the Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers reinforces throughout) is that people are not as clearly defined as they appear on the surface.
No more is this clearer than with Tonya Harding herself. Ahead of the curve considering the rise of anti-hero driven stories in recent years (Walter White, John Wick, Nolan’s Batman) Gillespie and Robbie shape Harding as the anti-hero rather than the villain. Much like a scrappy underdog in a traditional sports movie, there is empathy for Harding’s struggle and admiration when she succeeds in spite of it but she also embraces the other end of the dichotomy. Watch in exhilaration when she lands the triple axel in one scene while also feeling the same exhilaration (for different reasons) when she venomously spouts profanities at judges who she feels have wronged her in another.
Much has been made about the dramatic transformation Robbie has undertaken for this role morphing her natural beauty into the significantly more frumpy Harding. However, there is far more to this performance. Anchored by Robbie’s ability to balance the thin line of morality, she conveys the complex depths of the character. In her mind, she has done no wrong, she has simply been caught with the wrong crowd at the wrong time and was subsequently made into a villain by association. Regardless of whether anyone buys that story is another issue entirely but Tonya Harding does so Robbie, in turn, must also commit with equal vigor in her portrayal of Harding. That is the mark of true performance and the fact that walking out of this film, perception of Tonya Harding has shifted (even slightly) is a testament to the strength of that performance. Robbie has projected a truth. Is it the absolute truth? No one knows but it’s Tonya Harding’s truth.
Once all the characters are in place, we reach “the incident” that would become the defining moment of Tonya Harding’s life. Indeed Gillespie doesn’t deprive the audience of seeing the iconic moment on screen but he also doesn’t dwell on it either. I, Tonya is about Tonya Harding’s life as a whole, not one singular moment. At times, the film steers a little too far into sympathy and occasionally plays its musical cues too on the nose (Devil Woman to introduce Janney’s character for example) but by in large it is able to maintain its objectivity.
As Harding says in one voice over monologue “everyone has their own truth” Gillespie only presents pieces to the puzzle, how that puzzle is deciphered and the corresponding image left behind is in the eye of the beholder.
Review: I, Tonya Tells Us The Past Is What We Make Of It
The past is just a story we tell ourselves in this biopic of Tonya Harding's life. A career-best for Margot Robbie