I, Tonya (2017) REVIEW – Margot Robbie Shines

Credit: NEON

Margot Robbie transforms herself into disgraced Olympian Tonya Harding and enters the pantheon of best actress contenders in I, Tonya.

Craig Gillespie directs from Steven Rogers’ screenplay and let’s just say the film is funnier than it should be. A figure such as the disgraced ice skater doesn’t seem to be the type that should have a comedy movie as a biopic. Whether or not Rogers or Gillespie thought they were making a drama while shooting or during post-production, the film plays more so as a comedy than anything else. Whatever it is that they go for, the emotional beats hit at just the right level.

It’s not that the filmmakers intentionally went for laughs –maybe they did– but Rogers’ script puts the main focus on the interviews with Harding (Robbie) and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). There are other interviews including Tonya’s mother, LaVona Harding (Allison Janney), and friend/bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), many of which are verbatim from original footage.

While the film is grounded through the interviews, in typical documentary fashion, it’s interspersed with narrative-style footage from Harding’s childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. Everyone will come for the Incident but it’s important as an audience –whether you’re Team Nancy or Team Tonya– to learn where Harding came from and how those around her influenced the type of life she lived. Similarly to last month’s Lady Bird, Harding had a complex relationship with her abusive mother, LaVona.

It was not until Harding reached early adulthood that she met Gillooly. At the time, there probably wasn’t a soul who could foresee their future and just how abusive he could be; Sebastian Stan disappears into the role.

It should be noted that despite all of the domestic abuse, the filmmakers don’t take it too far. After so much of it, one starts to empathize with the figure skater after seeing what she went through while growing up.

Ah, yes, The Incident. That’s why you’re here, right? Through interviews, the film leads us to the big moment, but there’s a lot of backstory just getting to the point. There’s no denying that Harding had a rivalry with U.S. figure skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), but it could have been explored better.  Their friendship, on and off the rink, wasn’t really explored and aside from one knee getting hurt really bad, Kerrigan is almost a non-factor.

Robbie’s performance is truly impressive when one takes into account that I, Tonya was shot in a month. Much credit has to go to costume designer Jennifer Johnson, hair stylist Mary Everett and makeup artist Deborah La Mia Denaver for helping her transform quickly into the figure skater, not just as an adult but as a teenager, too. Because it’s a true story, production designer Jade Healy, costume designer Jennifer Johnson and art director Andi Crumbley made sure to accurately re-create the locations, including the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

Janney’s overall performance improves when one considers that The West Wing alumus had to film those interviews with a parakeet on her shoulder. Anyone that has to perform with a parakeet should be nominated for every award in existence. McKenna Grace, who broke through as a performer earlier this year in Gifted, co-stars as the adolescent Harding.

Unlike October’s Marshall, Harding is front and center in the film –  she’s presented as a supporting player in the ensemble. Grounded by its documentary style footage, I, Tonya makes for a fresh take on the biopic/sports genre while audiences are able to learn more about what led Harding down her path.

Neon opens I, Tonya in select cities on December 8, 2017.  A theatrical expansion will follow. 

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