“I thought being famous was gonna be fun.”
As Tonya Harding hurried to the Lillehammer rink at 1994’s Winter Olympics in Norway, racing against the clock for fear of expulsion in that desolate tunnel, trying to mend laces and skates unfit for the impending twists and turns and that legendary triple axel, announcer Verne Lundquist uttered a line with his trademark commercial cool that soon proved to be a reality. “Well, this bizarre, real life movie continues.” When you watch the actual footage, you’re shocked by the overwhelming implausibility of the media circus surrounding such an indelible encapsulation of this 90’s hysteria. Yet in I, Tonya – a movie about abuse, classicism, and reckless consumerism – the screen becomes an open door for us to walk through, experiencing this true story from a more intimate perspective. Flavored by Pop Rocks and dancing along to the tune of jukebox favorites, this retrofitted and indefinable biopic casts its line with little doubt and reels it in with reckless reassurance, and it’s a chaotic piece of art so representative of a life quite literally lived on the edge of the blade, constantly in search of acceptance and truth.
So much of what makes I, Tonya such a deeply personal take on the clean-cut, picture-perfect “American Dream” ideal is its imperfect appeal to the implied perfection. The film is scattered, abrupt, cut and spliced and woven like a county fair wicker basket. Characters break the fourth wall with little to no strategy, almost to the point that our interaction with them becomes as infrequent and unpredictable as their own bipolar behavior. And yet it all makes sense because the picture is a refined assembly cut of all the issues at hand. When things don’t seem to be clicking in I, Tonya, it’s not because the film’s been poorly made, but more so because these intentional hiccups slap us in the face so as to notice something particular. Such a brash story – especially one this uneven with its script – rarely needs subtlety or the grace of a great skate; it first and foremost requires sheer force.
Poor, undereducated, beautiful and tomboyish. Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) found figure skating at a young age (played by up-and-comer McKenna Grace), and the film seems to posit that the rink was her safe space, her attempt to feel pretty and elite and worthwhile. Skating isn’t a sport for the lowly, and Tonya – dressed in hand-sewn outfits from her abusive mother (Allison Janney, who’s sinewy and captivating, and while very good, gives a one-note performance completely undeserving of her inevitable Best Supporting Actress win) – tried to take the sport through her physicality. Watch real footage of Tonya and you realize this wasn’t a woman trying to gracefully lift off the ice; the slick surface was both friend and foe, a platform to thrust her upward and at once come crashing down with great force. Tonya wanted to be great whilst constantly being told she was never good enough. Here, she doesn’t crave fame or idolatry; she yearns for compassion, acceptance, and a world where the best are awarded without bias. All of the issues presented here are much clearer and more thoroughly investigated in Steve James’ epic documentary Hoop Dreams. Both implement social significance as a bastion of possibility, yet the biggest difference between the two is that I, Tonya lyricises and romanticises its deceit while the basketball doc desperately hopes the lies transform into truths. They’re equally heartbreaking.
An absent Father. A chainsmoking lush of a Mother who’s so rough around the edges that she makes a burlap sack look like satin sheets. Tonya grew up abused – psychologically and occasionally physically – by all those she held dear. Even Jeff Gillooly (a sensational Sebastian Stan), her first serious boyfriend and the man she eventually divorced, slapped her around with words and with hands. I, Tonya doesn’t further exploit its central character through these encounters, nor does it drive in an epidural beforehand so that we feel nothing. If anything, this tragicomedy with a dark humored heart postulates exacting opinions about the pressures experienced by women of the then and the now. They wear grave, overwhelming legcuffs that force them to shuffle along rather than to sprint, and the film itself illustrates mankind’s new appetite for chewing up and spitting out those 15-seconds-of-fame stars with a Neanderthal barbarity. It’s really not important that a hit was put out on fellow competitor and friend Nancy Kerrigan, nor whether or not the truth is fully exposed. We don’t want the truth; we just want a story to consume, and this one was absolutely scintillating.
Oddly enough, I, Tonya still searches for the truth while remaining adamantly oblivious as to what’s fact and fiction. It’s definitively insane in that way, and this abrasive, caustic methodology is the tone of a picture that doesn’t want to portend its events in a single linear fashion. Craig Gillespie – a director who somehow made Lars and the Real Girl (a love story between a timorous hermit and a lifelike sex doll…yes that’s 100% serious) into a hilariously poignant piece about affection and change – covers everything with a cloud of insincerity, suggesting that this drama might just be a comedy, or that this divisive character study might just be an elaborate ruse. By shifting between different timelines and conflicting versions of truth, I, Tonya is the VHS generation’s spliced version of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and its dive into social justice reasoning. The first time I saw that film, I rearranged my room so that my father’s digital projector would display on the opposite wall from my headboard. I can still remember the bulb’s heat singeing my neck, the score bouncing off the walls at 1 AM, and that devilish look on Toshiro Mifune’s face. I, Tonya might be excellent – while nowhere near as good as Rashomon – yet it’s so big and hyperbolic that’s Harding’s 5’1″ frame easily becomes overwhelming, at times even foreboding. We fear and embrace her presence.
After getting sucked into a YouTube wormhole, watching hours of old coverage and performances, I began to realize that figure skating was the perfect metaphor for Tonya’s entire life. It’s a harsh sport, one that tempts you to finish after falling, and is ruled by subjective judges with crucial decimal points capable of altering your entire life. Margot Robbie – perhaps the greatest chameleon of her generation – embraces Tonya’s flair for the dramatics, and in a just world would be the front-runner for this year’s Best Actress award. She’s not just playing a real person; she’s serving as an identifiable figure trying to lead a women’s movement, battling the patriarchy and the law of the land to skate, to tell the truth, the whole truth, so help her God. I, Tonya places its right hand on the Bible as it swears in an oath, all while the left hand has fingers crossed behind its back. What a fascinating film this is, and how clever is it to reduce itself down to a fanciful, high falutin and childish state claiming, “I don’t know!”, all with a wry grin, a sly wink, and a knowing nod. Sometimes it’s far easier to see and interpret what’s fake than it is to convince yourself of an absolute truth.
“Everyone has their own truth and life just does whatever the fuck it wants.”
Rating: 4 out of 5