Over the years, the rise and fall of Tonya Harding has evolved from tabloid fodder to a punch line to the stuff of half-remembered legend. I, Tonya presents the unconventional Olympic figure skater's stranger-than-fiction story with balance, nuance, and affection -- but not quite redemption -- for the film's titular tragic hero.
I, Tonya chronicles 40 years in the life of Harding (Margot Robbie), a poor, brash skater raised by an abusive mom, who first made history by becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition. The film uses a variety of narrative devices, including an "irony-free" and "wildly contradictory" mockumentary format, to frame the narrative. Sequential scenes are interrupted by interview footage of Harding and her inner circle in the present day, as they recall their versions of the events depicted. This motif -- along with moments in which characters in the main story line break the fourth wall to give their two cents -- successfully creates a delicate balance between dark comedy and brutal sincerity. After some of the film's most gut-wrenching moments, a character in an interview segment will chime in with a deadpan one-liner. For example, after Harding's chain-smoking mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), accidentally stabs her daughter, present-day Golden responds, "What family doesn't have its ups and downs?"
On top of establishing such a complex tone, the film has the task of being an Olympic-level sports movie on an indie budget -- and to that end, it succeeds commendably. Director Craig Gillespie and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis choreograph dramatic, sweeping camerawork to capture Harding's athleticism and prowess in her routines. While Robbie did learn to ice-skate for the film, her face is imposed on a double à la Black Swan for the more taxing technical moves. This effect is noticeable at times, but it works for the most part, allowing Robbie's facial expressions to coexist with the skating so the audience gets a complete picture of Harding as a performer. The meticulous recreation of Harding's routines is matched by the reproduction of her ensembles, topped with spot-on makeup from Deborah La Mia Denaver and hair by Oscar winner Adruitha Lee. Denaver's subtle, low-budget old-age makeup is worth applauding, as it's so easy to get wrong and can easily distract from an actor's performance.
While the film's technical elements are harmonious, its success comes down to the performances of Robbie, Janney, and Sebastian Stan, the latter of whom plays Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. These actors have the difficult task of portraying real, still-living people, and showing their troubling faults alongside their virtues. A consistent, talented performer, Janney knocks it out of the park as Golden, who is callous, irredeemable, and riotously blunt. Meanwhile, Stan's ability to make Gillooly seem loving and meek just as easily as violent and controlling muddies the audience's ability to decipher whether his or Harding's version of events is the truth.
For her first role as a leading lady, Robbie took her fate into her own hands to show what she's capable of as an actress. The Aussie found the movie's script herself, then negotiated to both star in and produce the film. Robbie portrays Harding as a broken but relentless woman who, though she was consistently dismissed by the media, the world of figure skating, and the American public, fought back against the rigid gender norms and classism in skating.
Yet for all her appeal as a sort of feminist icon, Harding isn't totally let off the hook for her role in her own misfortunes. Robbie's Harding sneers and scoffs, refusing to accept responsibility for failures that were completely within her control. She bad-mouths Nancy Kerrigan while claiming she'd never hurt her "friend." Robbie captures the self-pity, insecurity, and desperation that radiated off Harding and made her not just unlikeable, but an easy cultural punching bag.
I, Tonya lags when the consequences of "the incident" become too depressing to intersperse with comedy, but the film ultimately succeeds at pulling back the curtain to reveal the person behind the punch line. While the movie might not change everyone's opinion of Harding, it contextualizes and humanizes her, revealing a flawed but sympathetic woman still fighting for her place in the world.