Toward the end of the rollicking, acerbic and whip-smart tribute to Tonya Harding, “I, Tonya,” our heroine (Margot Robbie) drawls flatly: “The haters always say, Tonya, tell the truth. There’s no such thing as truth.”
It’s an apt thesis for a film that dives into the swirling narratives surrounding the scandal-prone figure skater and dredges up something that ultimately feels real. Shockingly, it also feels redemptive.
Get ready to cheer for America’s most reviled ice princess in Craig Gillespie’s brash biopic, which impugns our collective love affair with beautiful figure skaters, as well as our bloodlust for catfights. Based on a series of “wildly contradictory” interviews with the major players in the Tonya Harding story — her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), and Tonya herself — “I, Tonya” is a ferociously meta piece of filmmaking.
“I never did this,” Tonya says, looking into the camera, as she fires off a shotgun at her husband during a violent fight.
Robbie looks into the camera as much as she looks at the other characters, inviting us into the story, which is a rather tragic tale of abuse and oppression. Young Tonya is brought onto the ice at 4 years old by her chain-smoking mother, and for the next 20 years, that is all she knows. It is her only talent, her only trade, her only way up and out of her harrowing existence.
The script, by Steven Rogers, positions Tonya not just as an object of fascination for America, but emblematic of America itself. Her coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), says, “People either love Tonya, or they’re not big fans, just like people love America or they’re not big fans.”
Coming from nothing, Tonya boot-strapped her way to the top harder than anyone has ever boot-strapped, battling an unstable home life, poverty and an abusive mother and boyfriend, to become the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition.
But the way she’s judged harshly for her costumes and style, proves that America is not, and never has been, a meritocracy. The final blow comes courtesy of blowhard Jeff, who bumbled his way into hiring thugs to kneecap Nancy Kerrigan. It’s an age-old tale: Men ruin everything.
Throughout the film, Rogers’ screenplay reminds us it’s not just “I, Tonya,” but “We, Tonya.” She endures years of abuse to make it to the top, but fame becomes her plight, as she’s the latest grist for the mill of America’s obsession with fame, with loving, hating and loving to hate public figures.
“I, Tonya” walks an impossibly tightrope, flip-flopping from dark to funny to darkly funny. The outlandish and visceral film has a shaggy dog appeal, and it never stops talking. At the heart is a fully committed Robbie, who embodies Tonya’s stubborn fire and gives her the dignity she was never afforded. By the time the real footage of the triple axel rolls, you’ll be on your feet.
Rated R for pervasive language, violence and some sexual content/nudity.