The world of celebrity can be a difficult. You can be admired and hated at the turn of a dime. But sometimes you can just be hated. The media has a lot to do with it, from tabloids to news shows to late night monologues. Usually it’s in flippant commentary, like the recurring instance this writer recalls of a local TV Entertainment anchor here in Miami referring to Amy Winehouse’s hair as a “nappy beehive.” This was all during the talented singer’s downward spiral into a bout of erratic behavior and alcoholism that ultimately led to her death.
Similarly, champion figure skater Tonya Harding suffered a lot of hate in the ‘90s. From her role in the breaking of rival skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee cap to the overly done rouge on her cheeks, she was seen as a villainess by the masses and the media alike. It was something easy for the media to portray with typical ill-informed, flippant ease as this writer observed through casual glances at supermarket tabloids or in commentary by news anchors. Sympathy for Harding was hardly ever there.
Directed by Craig Gillespie from a screenplay by Steven Rogers the new film about Harding, I, Tonya, walks a difficult line of having to repress the tendency to see Harding as a joke while attempting sympathy. From the get-go it’s hard to take these characters seriously as they talk to the camera with thick accents spouting defensive words and referencing a “redneck” heritage as they recollect that crucial event. The film’s lead — as well as one of the film’s producers — Margot Robbie, however, raises the film to a higher level of compassion. She has been nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, and it is well deserved. She plays Harding with a range of sensitivity, bringing verve and heart to Harding’s feisty quality on the ice as well as a confrontational force to counter both an abusive husband (Sebastian Stan) and mother (Allison Janney).
Speaking of the latter, Janney, also a Golden Globe nominee, often steals the show with her heightened performance. The film is structured like a documentary with actors playing the talking head versions of their characters. During these interviews, which are intercut between episodes that beg for contextual perspective, Janney is blessed with a couple of props, like an oxygen tube in her nose, not to mention a small parrot on her shoulder. She also gives a killer performance, even though it leans as farce compared to Robbie’s more compassionate portrayal of the titular character. This makes for tonal problems in a film that certainly tries for sympathy, but there’s also an overarching theme that explores what is the truth within an amalgamation of perspectives.
Though the knee-cracking attack on Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) by a hired goon and the fallout from the incident takes up much of the final third of the film, the movie spends much of its time focused on Harding and the sad, violent world she grew up in. Played by two young actresses at various ages (Maizie Smith and Mckenna Grace), the film opens with insight into her childhood where she enjoyed hunting rabbits with dad (Jason Davis) before he became fed up with her mother’s abusiveness and left her in her mom’s “care.” Though coming from an impoverished background, Harding is depicted as having a fearless spirit, which translated to her skills on the ice, whose scenes are vibrantly depicted via a seamless use of stunt performers and effects. The figure skating world is presented as a space of privilege, where money got you the best teachers, outfits and skates, none of which Harding had easy access to.
With this background, we watch Harding grows up and eventually falls for her future husband, Jeff Gillooly, while she is still in high school. He matches her in inexperience with the opposite sex, and both cling to each other as if there has never been another alternative, despite Gillooly’s abusive tendencies. That she grew up in a house where mom would slap her, it makes sense that Harding would endure the same actions by a husband. In a turn of realistic irony, her mother questions why she stays with a man who would give her black eye. This messiness is the crux of the stubborn perspective of these people, which informs the varying stories of how Kerrigan ended up with a broken knee.
Though I, Tonya has some tonal issues and sometimes makes too light of the real life of a person who grew up ridiculed in the spotlight, it’s a strong film in how it depicts our perspective of such a person. The filmmakers genuinely strive for a sympathetic portrayal of Harding while hardly forgiving the actions of her and her family, not to mention Gillooly’s friend and accused “mastermind” of the attack, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Ultimately, it’s Robbie’s performance that pushes the film beyond farce and gives it the heart it so desperately needs to keep it from falling too terribly off the deep end into black comedy about real life tragedy.
I, Tonya runs 120 minutes and is rated R. It opened in our Miami area at Tower Theater Miami, Cinépolis Coconut Grove, AMC Aventura 24, O Cinema Wynwood, South Beach Regal 18 Miami Beach, Cinépolis Coconut Grove and the Landmark at Merrick Park on Friday, Jan. 5. Further north, in Broward County, it is now playing at the Classic Gateway Theatre. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Neon sent us a DVD screener for the purpose of awards consideration, late last year.