Movie review: I, Tonya looks beyond mockery in the skating scandal

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I, Tonya adds dimension to the twisted true story of the 1994 Olympic skating scandal that turned Tonya Harding into a punchline and destroyed her career. Courtesy Neon I, Tonya adds dimension to the twisted true story of the 1994 Olympic skating scandal that turned Tonya Harding into a punchline and destroyed her career. Courtesy Neon

Forget everything you think you knew about Tonya Harding. While you’re at it, forget everything you’ve seen about I, Tonya, a deep dive into the infamous assault on Nancy Kerrigan leading up to the figure skating competition in the 1994 Olympics. The film is being sold partially as a tabloidy trash-watch, a Lifetime movie with a bigger budget and higher-shelf stars, when in fact it is a testament to how perspective shapes our memory, and society’s collective role in harshly punishing one of skating’s most incredible talents out of our own classism and schadenfreude. No one is exactly the good guy in this story, but that does not make everyone the villain by default, which is what we—yes, all of us who were alive at the time—did to Harding.

I, Tonya
R, 121 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

The film centers around confessional- style interviews with Tonya (Margot Robbie), her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her mother, LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney). They speak directly to the camera as they explore their roles in what happened, not only on January 4, 1994, in Detroit but in the preceding years as well.

Tonya was a skating prodigy, blessed with natural talent and incredible athleticism from a young age, but cursed with a mother who considered slapping, denigration and harsh coaching as forms of motivation. She comes to see abuse as normal and not inconsistent with a loving relationship, and the physical and emotional intimidation continues with her husband, Jeff, whom she marries at a young age.

Jeff’s brand is especially toxic; LaVona’s assaults ended when Tonya moved out, but Jeff follows her to new locations when she leaves, threatens murder-suicide and brings her into his absurd world of small-time crooks who are legendary mafiosos in their own mind, particularly Tonya’s nominal bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt. (Shawn’s confessional moments are particularly absurd, posturing himself as both a master criminal and a counter-terrorism expert, but stay for the credits and you will see this person actually exists.)

All of this sets the stage for how the events went down from different points of view, contrasting the accounts of those who lived it with those of us who only knew what we saw on television. If the characters are to be believed, Tonya’s actual role in the assault was minimal—this was mostly the brainchild of Shawn and Jeff acting without her knowledge —but her combativeness, rough-around-the-edges style and working-class upbringing made her the perfect antagonist to all-American Nancy. Sometimes memories differ and sometimes they line up, but as director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) illustrates, perspective is everything.

About halfway through, Tonya looks straight at the camera and declares that we, the audience, were party to her reabuse every time she was made a punchline on late-night television. Until this point, there is an ironic, Scorsese-esque lightheartedness to even the harshest moments, perhaps serving to juxtapose Tonya’s then-acceptance of abuse with its actual brutality.

When Tonya makes her declaration, the giggling stops immediately, and the film’s message becomes clear—questioning what we think we know about a person in the public eye, and the disconnect we make when participating in pile-on humiliations. This was at the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle, and 23 years later, we still participate in collective mockery and shaming, only the net is much wider with social media; people become temporarily infamous every day, experiencing meme-ification for our enjoyment but potentially ruining their lives forever.

With great performances, a solid script and tight direction, I, Tonya is an intelligent movie that treats its subject matter with appropriate seriousness, while declaring and demonstrating its message, wiping away any ambiguity for those who might still want to laugh at the misfortune of others.


Playing this week

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
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