I, TONYA Review: 10 (Dark Edge of the Blade)
I, TONYA is a delightfully dark comedy directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers. The film follows the infamous life and career of figure skater Tonya Harding, with particular focus on her connection to the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan, Harding's rival and Olympic teammate. It is the unique style of featuring interviews with the characters in mockumentary-style that makes this film really compelling. The film is set in the modern day, and told in a flashback. Margot Robbie (who also produced) stars as Harding, Sebastian Stan plays Harding's husband Jeff Gillooly, and Allison Janney plays Harding's mother, LaVona Fay Golden; Julianne Nicholson, Caitlin Carver, and Bobby Cannavale also star.
The film is unapologetic in its portrayal of Harding as a redneck outsider trying to make her way in the figure skating world full of starlings. This film has a lot to say about classism in Olympic sports and the elitism that Harding and her family pushed back against. Early on, the film focuses on the relationship between Tonya and her mother LaVona. Allison Janney gives a fantastic performance as a monstrously demanding parent. The film shows some very dark sequences of physical and mental abuse, many times in a tone played for humor. It is a dark tale, to be sure, and the film rides a very thin line of recognizing the abuse without celebrating it. As Tonya grows older, she looks to escape her mother through her boyfriend (and later husband) Jeff. Again, the film creates a very complicated look at Tonya and Jeff in what is a toxic romance. All of this leads into the climax of the film --the Kerrigan incident and the following Olympics in 1994. Paul Walter Hauser is the scene stealer in the film starring as Jeff's friend Shawn who works to orchestrate the attack on Kerrigan. His portrayal of the hoagie eating dim and delusional Shawn is one of the real joys of the film
And meanwhile, Tonya clutches and grabs at her elusive career trying to skate her way into the hearts of her fans and the elitist skating community. Margot Robbie continues to show herself to be one of the best actresses working as she portrays the embattled Tonya. However, the film avoids making her into a celebrated martyr. the movie is careful to communicate the willingness of Tonya to blame others for some of the mistakes she made. And like the elusive truth behind the Kerrigan attack, the movie is also a bit murky when assessing blame. The bigger picture here is the casting and performances in this mockumentary biopic that is told with such a refreshing voice. There are moments throughout the film where characters suddenly break the "fourth wall" and begin talking directly to the audience, communicating their inner monologue in the moment of the action. Though this is something that has been seen in Frank Underwood's character HOUSE OF CARDS and other select shows and films, the dark comedic tone and the blending of fiction and truth from the real history of the event makes this an even more effective choice for the film. It is clear that the film is looking for truthiness but mixes and muddles facts with memories, perspectives, and bias.
I, TONYA is easily one of the best films of 2017 and would have easily cracked my Top 10 of the year. For those who are old enough to remember and experience the Harding/Kerrigan story, this will have an extra bit of weight and heft. Others might consider the ESPN documentary THE PRICE OF GOLD as a way to catch up on the history. In any case, this is a film that isn't to be missed. Highly Recommended.