There is a number of things from 1991 that made their mark in America. Two of them are the mainstream popularity of grunge instigated by Nevermind, and the first American female skater to land a triple axel. Both came from scrappy individuals who subverted their respective industries and experienced something tragic. One of them is fondly remembered, while the other is reviled.
I, Tonya exhumes the story of Tonya Harding’s figure skating career. Skewing conventional autobiographies, the movie does everything that it shouldn’t – voice-overs and unreliable narrators. It tackles class and the nature of truth under the guise of humor, two things plenty of us can relate to in 2018.
Margot Robbie proves that she’s more than just a pretty face here, surrounded by equally great performances. The characters give a documentary-style commentary that the plot weaves together to trace Harding’s beginnings leading to the incident.
The performances and script combine with editing and production design to deliver scuzzy characters in a tongue-in-cheek biopic against a detailed backdrop. Robbie – a one-time hockey player – was trained enough to deliver the less technical parts of the dynamic ice skating sequences which are left to the stunt doubles.
While I, Tonya is a fun movie to watch it has a simplistic understanding of its character and demands us to celebrate a questionable person.
There’s something intricately compelling about landing her first triple axel – for one moment Harding is able to achieve something beyond what her underprivileged life can never provide, found an escape from her toxic relationships and flip the bird to a subjective image-obsessed sport. Unfortunately, the movie only scratches the surface of understanding her.
The movie takes a jab at the tabloid obsessed public who live vicariously through other people’s demise, yet uses Tonya’s tragedy for comedy.
She’s lampooned at every opportunity and surrounded by equally cartoonish characters, who nearly stole the movie in the second act when the “incident” is finally mentioned. Set on playing it up for laughs, I, Tonya glosses over Harding’s involvement in the case all the while celebrating her indomitable spirit and the victim is just a passing figure.
Yes, this is about her after all, but when you have a glamorized biopic of a woman who could have been involved in a violent attack (and the cast is also willing to play along for awards), its feels off to laugh along and empathize with a character that it’s obviously goading you to sympathize with.
In fairness, I, Tonya does fully admit that it is a wildly contradicting story and its narrators are untrustworthy. This isn’t the first and last time that shady people gets Hollywoodized for profit and award prestige. It’s a decent enough sports film with a Coen brothers’ caper, unravelling like a trainwreck in slow motion that you can’t look away.
The ultimate question though is whether the public should apologize to Tonya Harding and give her redemption. The movie doesn’t make enough of a compelling case to answer or contemplate this, and some would immediately say no. But hey, at least you get to laugh at a disgraced figure skater who used a Jurassic Park theme for her performance.
I, Tonya is a decent sports film and an entertaining tragicomedy thanks to clever editing, detailed production design, and great performances.