I, Tonya – movie review

by James Robins / 10 February, 2018
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The “totally true” Tonya Harding saga reeks of contradictions.

cheeky disclaimer at the start of I, Tonya promises an “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true” account of American figure skater Tonya Harding’s life and her fall from grace after rival Nancy Kerrigan was famously bludgeoned out of competition in 1994.

The script is based on testimony from Tonya herself (played competently by Margot Robbie), her husband at the time, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her scabrous mother, LaVona (for which Allison Janney will probably win an Oscar).

These characters frequently stare down the camera lens or burst through the fourth wall mid-scene, interjecting their own lopsided view into a narrative just as unreliable as they are. These competing accounts fracture the film in two.

On one hand, there is an energetic and atypical biopic about Tonya’s conquest of a sport that routinely scoffed at her – a brawny working-class woman. “She looks like she chops wood every morning,” her first coach sneers. Before 1994, there’s many a triumphant ovation and victorious smile. Tonya (a self-described “redneck”) is America and America is Tonya, we’re told. She conquers all.

On the other hand, LaVona’s demand for a champion daughter omitted all love. As seen here, LaVona is a sadist. She is supposed to be the comic soul of the film, mock-interviewed in ridiculous glasses with a bird pecking her ear. And yet she taught Tonya to endure cruelty as the price of success: a direct forerunner to Jeff, who from their first moments together is slapping his wife, choking her against a wall, threatening her with a loaded pistol, then tearfully begging to be taken back. And still Jeff tells us directly that he never hit her – a punchline that for once doesn’t land.

Further still, the film-makers try to have it both ways, aiming for honesty, then dismissing it. In the film’s singularly most confronting moment, Robbie’s Tonya reflects on being a victim of the media. “You’re all my attackers,” she charges. The point is undercut when later, again with a battered face, she spits that “there’s no such thing as truth … everyone has their own truth”. This is the dark, damaging heart of the film. It’s not “irony-free” after all, but it’s certainly contradictory.

The present political moment, which inevitably colours the film, explicitly demands truth and that we refuse to be complicit in the indignities inflicted on countless women. I, Tonya ducks this moral duty, instead inviting us to jeer at a dysfunctional poor family and the violence Tonya Harding really did endure. This is thin ice indeed.

Video: One Media

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★

This article was first published in the February 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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