I, Tonya – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

You don’t need to like Tonya Harding to like this stranger-than-fiction true story of the disgraced figure skater’s troubled life.

Margot Robbie stars in I, Tonya. Photo copyright 2017 Neon.

Dramatic elements of the story, including Tonya’s physically and emotionally abusive mother and husband, abandonment by her father, and Nancy Kerrigan’s busted knee cap, are perfect for supermarket tabloid cover stories. However, under Craig Gillespie’s quirky direction and Steven Rogers’s clever screenplay, I, Tonya emerges as a darkly comic character study of one damaged young woman’s attempt to overcome the overwhelming odds stacked against her. And briefly – very briefly – she succeeds.

Actions and Reactions

As depicted in this film, Tonya Harding’s life could be described as a series of actions and reactions – or perhaps motions and emotions. Aided by actress Margot Robbie’s enthusiasm and athleticism (in addition to numerous CGI effects), Tonya is shown as a girl twirling and jumping on the ice, running through the house to avoid a beating, or otherwise keeping herself a moving target from her vicious mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Jamey, who won best supporting actress at the 2018 Golden Globes for this role), and violent husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). These three actors, along with Julianne Nicholson as Tonya’s sympathetic skating coach fully commit to their characters, regardless of their exposed ugliness and weaknesses.

Although Tonya’s single mother works long hours waitressing to pay for years of ice skating lessons, her homemade costumes, working class attitude, and dedication to technique over style always separate her from the other more wholesome girls involved in the sport. Facing the judges’ constant disapproval and derision from the wealthier girls, Tonya goes home each day to face more abuse: Golden’s never-ending dissatisfaction with her daughter. Later, Golden is replaced by a similarly abusive husband. The film doesn’t attempt to defend anyone’s actions, but merely relates the sadly ironic events in her life and career.

A Destroyed Career

Love, tenderness, compassion, contemplation, insight, and analysis are entirely absent in Tonya’s life, which helps explain – though not justify – her collaboration in the attack on her skating rival in the Olympics, Nancy Kerrigan, whose kneecap is savagely hit by a baton during practice. Tonya’s husband, his delusional friend, and two hired goons plan the ill-conceived attack. Intended to elevate Tonya’s chances of success, instead the attack glorifies Nancy (and has sponsors throwing money at her for endorsements), while Tonya’s reputation is destroyed, the press tears her apart, her rankings are low, and a judge bans her from figure skating for life, despite her rare ability to achieve the triple axel.

While many of the facts in this case were already known, Tonya’s conflicted background and the other characters in this story provide a clearer picture of how this strange, but true story came to pass. Iconic music from that time period is used effectively in the film, most notably the introduction of Golden with “Devil Woman.” Unusual camera angles and pans, flashes back and forth in time as older versions of the characters are interviewed about their experiences, and breaking of the fourth wall combine to make this edgy film lively and interesting with a fictionalized feel, despite its determination to stick to the facts.

I, Tonya

  • Based on the bizarre true story of how figure skater Tonya Harding rose to stardom and fell from grace.
  • Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, McKenna Grace
  • Director: Craig Gillespie
  • Screenwriter: Steven Rogers
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 120 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity)
  • Additional Information: Watch a trailer for this film.