By: Nick van Dinther
Every news station covered what happened to Nancy Kerrigan leading up to the 1994 Olympics, and the supposed involvement of Tonya Harding. So, how do you take a story that everyone knows and create something new out of it? Director Craig Gillespie excellently answers that question with I, Tonya, a movie about so much more than just “the incident”.
I, Tonya is based on the true story of figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), an Olympic hopeful for the USA. The film follows the journey she had to take to make a name for herself, and the obstacles she faced getting there, all leading up to the infamous “incident”.
There are quite a few ways this story could have been told, but Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, 2011’s Fright Night) seems to have settled on a winning strategy. He is not afraid to take risks with his filmmaking and it pays off in spades. His biggest achievement is turning I, Tonya into more of a comedy than a straight drama, as the absurdity of some of these people and situations are unavoidably over-the-top. One could even criticize the authenticity of the characters in the story as they seem too farfetched at times but, by all accounts, this is the way their real-life counterparts actually were.
When it comes to the performances in this film, there are a few standouts. Margot Robbie does a great job of becoming Harding and leading the film. She shows the ups and downs of the character and tows a fine line of making Harding sympathetic without having the viewer root for her. She is joined by Sebastian Stan, who plays her husband Jeff Gillooly – they have a great dynamic together. The heart of this movie is in the relationship between Harding and Gillooly, as well as the relationship between Harding and her mother. Speaking of which, this is a film where each main actor is tasked with the one-upmanship of being more unlikeable than surrounding unlikeable characters – no one does that as good as Allison Janney. Janney absolutely steals the show as the crass – and frankly terrible – mother of Harding. Every scene she’s in is engaging and ruthless. Janney is known for putting out consistently good work, but this may be her best performance yet.
Craig Gillespie makes a great move by telling the story from all different points-of-view. There are interview clips integrated throughout the film from various characters, and it’s done in a way that avoids a convoluted narrative – this is usually incredibly hard to pull off. Another device Gillespie uses well is having the story’s narration cut into fourth wall breaks on-screen. It’s another bold move that could come off as cheesy, but it’s executed with great precision and timing. The song choices also compliment the film well. For all the hype the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise has received for it’s excellent soundtrack, I, Tonya is of equal genius.
This film is not without it’s flaws though. As good as the performances are, some characters can come across quite goofy. Aside from Harding and her mother, the rest of the cast have out-of-place moments where they try too hard to stick a joke. Following a great build up, “the incident” itself comes across as tacky. This is a historical scene that should be one of the serious moments in I, Tonya, and it comes across like something out of an 80’s heist film. This, and a reliance on slow-motion effects and CGI in overproduced skating sequences, are the few occasions where Gillespie drops the ball.
The good, however, outweighs the bad in I, Tonya. Craig Gillespie’s film is a rare underdog story that wants the audience to understand the character as opposed to rooting for her. Thanks to some great performances, I, Tonya not only fulfills that goal, it transcends it.
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Nick van Dinther: @NickVanDinther