The 400-Word Review: I, Tonya
By Sean Collier
January 17, 2018
On the surface of I, Tonya, there is a strong comedy.
Defiant and brash Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) spins her way into the world of competitive figure skating, a rarified culture of wealth and glitz not normally accessed by kids from the wrong side of the tracks. Harding is a better athlete than any of her competitors, but from youth through international competition, she is saddled with the antics of her foul-mouthed mother (Alison Janney) and doofus ex-husband (Sebastian Stan).
When the braindead ex decides to try his hand at sabotage, a fool’s gallery of wannabe thugs — led by a deluded loaf of a self-styled black-ops expert (Paul Walter Hauser) — carries out the most ridiculous criminal scheme of the 20th century, whacking rival Nancy Kerrigan on the knee after a practice. The aftermath sweeps Harding right out of competitive skating, an ignominious end to an unlikely run.
Below the surface, I, Tonya is a Greek tragedy.
Abused by her mother and her husband, Harding trained and trained until her body could do what none of her competitors could possibly achieve, and for that, she was allowed to exist as a perennial runner-up. She was told her circumstances — handmade outfits, a vulgar entourage, un-privileged upbringing — would prevent her from ever being truly allowed in. She tried to cast those elements out of her life; she failed. They brought her down. After being denied admittance due to those around her, those around her unwittingly shut the door.
It is an impressive effort: Perhaps the greatest tabloid tale of the 1990s presented in a way that encourages a fresh take. It’s a group effort, here. Director Craig Gillespie, most recently of The Finest Hours and Million Dollar Arm, apes the right influences (there’s a lot of Scorsese). Screenwriter Steven Rogers, mostly a romcom writer, walks an impressive tightrope.
And the cast is magnificent. Robbie continues to establish herself as a young master, carrying the entire sweep of Harding’s life in moments that are at once tragic and comedic (but never exploitative — or, at least, never more exploitative than is deserved). Janney and Stan both perfectly embody their despicable characters who, at all turns, are utterly convinced of their own nobility.
Maybe it’s not a matter of surface and core; I, Tonya begins as a comedy and ends as a tragedy. It’s a dazzling, real-time rewrite of cultural history.
My Rating: 9/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark