Here we have movie — a comedy — that revisits the Tonya Harding story, the one about the top-level figure skater who was run out of the sport in 1994 after “friends” of hers attacked and tried to cripple a competitor.
It is done as a bio-pic, featuring actors who play the parts and then explain themselves in retrospective interviews. Their stories are self-serving and conflict with each other; no one comes off well, although the film’s makers probably would say they view Harding as a victim.
Harding-the-athlete is the typical child who works hard at something she loves and rises to excellence because of her talent and commitment. What makes her life interesting are the two barriers to her success: Not enough money and, worse, the people around her who are vulgar and violent and who teach her that fighting is the only way to get what you want.
The movie is a litany of low-rent behavior and sleazy details, but without them, “I, Tonya,” never would have been made. Happy families are all the same, as we know.
Tonya’s mother, LaVon (excellently played by Allison Janney) is a chain-smoking, five-times-divorced waitress whose approach to life is confrontational. When young Tonya says a girl at school called her “white trash,” LaVon says, “Spit in her milk.”
LaVon believes her daughter skates best when angry, and so the mother offers motivational comments like, “You skated like a graceless bulldyke” and then says Tonya looked like an “ugly fuckin’ whore.”
Tonya (Margaret Robbie) grows into a ferocious skating talent — the first American woman to do a triple axel — but one who never got the memo about middle-class values. She makes her own, too flashy skating costumes and dances to ZZ Top numbers instead of Saint-Saëns or Stravinsky.
The cost is lower performance scores because, as judges explain, “It’s never been entirely skill,” and part of the gig is projecting a “wholesome” image. Tonya remonstrates in the language she learned at home.
(The expectation that ice skaters generally and women skaters particularly must be virtuous is a real one. Skaters are described alternately as “athletes” and “artists,” and the real Tonya Harding paid a price for failing to carry herself like all the other ice princesses.)
Arguably, Tonya’s worst mistake is to take up with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the first boy who admires her and who begins beating her a few months later. The psychological and physical abuse continue into their marriage, which ends in divorce. The film suggests that Tonya reconciled with Jeff in order to project a happy family life more agreeable to her critics.
Unfortunately, Jeff comes with additional baggage — specifically his friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), a loser who calls himself Tonya’s bodyguard and who devises the Three Stooges-style plot to give Tonya an advantage before the Olympics. Shawn is a broad fellow and is drawn broadly as a low-class joke. This characterization, like LaVon’s language, buttresses the humor of the movie, which otherwise would be difficult to characterize as comedy.
And so it goes. We all know how the story ends, and “I, Tonya” is a pretty good film about the journey. It doesn’t make its point explicitly enough for my taste, and so I will do so here:
Tonya Harding’s skating career was the only thing her mother, her ex-husband and his stupid friends ever had going for them. But when the whole edifice crashed, she took the real hit. She’s been paying the price ever since.