Review: ‘I, Tonya’ is a Superb, Darkly Funny Biopic

At the height of the Tonya Harding/ Nancy Kerrigan scandal in the nineties, I remember reading about Ms. Harding, “there is a real trailer park mentality going on there.” Agreeing I stored that away, and whenever I saw Harding on TV or in the news, I applied that quote to her. Brash, attention seeking at all costs, defiant, entitled, she was a shameless self promoter, but also a fiercely competitive and dedicated athlete. She was also her own worst enemy, and a constant danger to herself.

In this very funny, very acerbic and often vicious biography of the skater Harding is portrayed by the gifted and gorgeous actress Margot Robbie of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Suicide Squad (2016). In her portrayal of the fallen Olympian she finds the perfect note for her performance which is to blame everyone else for her troubles, claim to be put upon, and go through her life with this massive chip on her shoulder. She is cocky, defies the judges to say something negative to her, driven arrogant, and ambitious. Knowing her only way out of the life she has lived is through skating, she decides very early to be the very best.

There was a time Harding might have been the best in the world. She was certainly among the best three and arguably the finest in the United States. Yet she lacked social graces, couch, she was vulgar, known to swear like a hockey player and was promiscuous. While other skaters had money behind them, she did not. Ever. Her outfits were home made or hand me downs, only her talent truly belonged to her. She was right in assuming the judges were against her, they certainly were.

Her mother, Latona Golden, a chain-smoking abusive woman was known to beat, humiliate, harass, insult, and abuse Harding emotionally, though she would claim it to be in the good of her career, pushing her to the next level. She excused her horror show treatment of her daughter stating she made her a champion, but at what cost?

So no question, Harding had it rough. In fact no one really knows the horrors she endured as a child.

But what if could she handle it? What if she fit right in to that trailer park mentality and was right at home? What if Harding knew exactly what was going on in her life, what she was doing and what she had put into motion? What if no matter how terrible it got for her, she was incredibly in her element? The film is a viciously funny black comedy, that is constantly winking at the audience, daring watchers to decide what they believe. At times she speaks directly to us, as though letting us into her world.

Harding, no question was a driven, hard working gifted skater, a true competitor who at one time might have been the finest figure skater in the world. On the Olympic team for the Olympics, she was teammate of Nancy Kerrigan who was a threat to win it all. When Kerrigan was attacked, her knee clubbed just after coming off the ice from a practice session, the trail led to Hardings husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Shaw). Of course all eyes then are focused on her and how much she knew or did she in fact put the whole plot in motion? The great irony of course is that she crashed and burned at the Olympics while Kerrigan soared to silver. Banished from further skating in the United States, Harding has become a boxer, TV host, and really, punchline for many jokes.

Two performances dominate the film, Margot Robbie, drop dead brilliant as Harding and Allison Janney as Lavona, her abrasive mother. Robbie in particular is a revelation, slipping under the skin of this dubious character with an ease that makes it clear she is indeed a great actress. Fearlessly capturing Hardings’ own abrasive nature, she is easy to dislike, but the portrayal is so blatantly honest, we cannot take our eyes off her. She becomes an unlikely hero in the film, warts and all.

Janney, a TV icon has been in her fair share of movies but never had the chance to cut loose with a great performance as she does here. A car wreck of a human being, sucking on oxygen as she smokes a cigarette, cursing at anyone who says a word to her, treating her daughter with utter disrespect, never giving her a moment to shine, she is horrific, and Janney is having a blast playing her. The two actresses, one fairly new, the other a long standing veteran, bounce off each other nicely in the film, as contentious as their fractured relationship might be.

Sebastian Shaw does good work as Jeff Gilooly, Hardings boyfriend, husband ex, and very likely partner in crime, but this film belongs to the ladies, each who will likely be nominated for an Oscar. Robbie did most of her own skating, no mean feat, but for the trickier sequences she had a double and some help with CGI.

The heart and soul of the film, with her stunning performance is all Robbie. She brilliantly captures the emotional fragility with which Harding lived her life. Once beloved, she became hated, and then, sadly forgotten. Until now.

Review: 4/5