I, Tonya actively makes you feel bad about watching it. It makes you feel even worse if you were one of the people contributing to the public laugh at Tonya Harding in the ’90s. That’s right, this is a movie that does such a good job at making you care about its protagonist that you feel bad about taking enjoyment from a fictional account of her story. And chances are you will enjoy I, Tonya while you’re watching it. You’ll just walk away feeling kind of bad about the true events of the story and any participation—direct or indirect—you had with it.
Margot Robbie stars as Tonya Harding. The film takes place primarily between 1992 and 1994, the latter of which contains “the incident,” that you probably remember. Nancy Kerrigan was beaten with a baton, and a media frenzy ensued. Signs pointed at both Harding and her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). The film details what happened—or, more correctly, what certain individuals claim happened. If the film’s account is true, it’s a huge mess—but maybe the fingers pointed at the wrong people.
That isn’t all that I, Tonya is about, though, and it doesn’t even take up half of the film’s overall running time. It’s more about what leads up to that event. Tonya’s childhood, her relationship with her mother (Allison Janney), her home life with Jeff, and her controversial skating career and media persona prior to the suspected planning of the assault. It all … well, it makes you feel sorry for Harding, really, is what it does.
However, I’m not saying that I, Tonya isn’t also a lot of fun. It’s a black comedy that, if you appreciate that sense of humor, will often have you laughing a lot. And some of the events that transpire are of the “you have to see them to believe them” variety. It’s never a dull film, is the point. And, no, you don’t have to be a figure skating fan to enjoy it. It has three or four abbreviated skating performances over its two hours, and while those are fine it’s what leads up to and follows them that really matters.
I, Tonya is entertaining from start to finish, does a lot in its two hours, and it’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far.
Structurally, the film sets itself apart from the crowd. It has “interviews” with the cast which frame certain moments and allow for time jumps to be handled with a bit more grace. The interviews provide further insight into the characters and provide additional laughs—characters speak with hindsight, which can often lead to people seeing the humor in the situations. There are a few fourth-wall breaks in the non-interview segments, too. The film never stops reminding us that it’s a movie, which is an interesting effect. It works.
Of course, it would all fall apart without a strong performance by Margot Robbie. She turns in an awards-caliber performance here, portraying the tenacity and defiance that defined—and probably still defines—Harding. The rare vulnerability we get to see rings even more powerful; most of the time, she’s a firecracker. Not to be outdone is Allison Janney, who plays her mother, a cold-hearted, largely emotionless woman. Janney is so good at getting us to hate her.
I, Tonya is about a lot of things. Domestic violence, abuse, class, determination, the media, and figure skating. Maybe in that order, but you could probably make a case to juggle a few of those around. It does a lot with these themes, makes us laugh, makes us sad, makes us angry, and does it all with a bit of different packaging and fantastic acting. It’s entertaining from start to finish, it does a lot in its two hours, and it’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far. And it’s December; there aren’t too many new movies to go.
Conclusion: I, Tonya is a wonderful movie about a person and an awful situation.
Recommendation: Even if you don’t care about figure skating, I, Tonya is worth watching.