REVIEW BY MAIA MATHIEU
I, Tonya is a movie about social class that’s trying very hard not to be a movie about exactly that. “Can’t it just be about skating?” Margot Robbie, as former U.S. Olympian skater Tonya Harding, pleads at one point, seemingly echoing the opinion of the writer and director.
For context: Tonya Harding is a two-time Olympic figure skater who grew up poor but emerged as a gifted skater, the first woman to land a triple axel in competition. She was barred for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association after pleading guilty to helping to cover up the fact that her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) arranged an attack on fellow Olympic skater, Nancy Kerrigan, in 1994.
There’s plenty to like about I, Tonya, after all, the direction is stylish and the soundtrack is epic, but it’s spoiled by its glibness. In striving to reframe Harding’s narrative as a parable about abuse instead of acknowledging the emergent story about the limitations imposed on her by her poverty, there’s some cheesy moralising put directly in the characters’ mouths, like a stale fortune cookie. “You’re all my abusers,” Harding declares, and later, “America likes having someone to hate.” That moralising also necessitates cramming in Harding’s life from age four until “The Incident,” overlaid with interviews set years later, nodding at multiple unreliable narrators without truly exploring the consequences . It’s too much, too fast, never slowing down to let the audience absorb the blows.
Robbie and Stan are both too old to play Harding and Gillooly during the events of “The Incident” and too young to play them in the later years. While miscast, they both turn in excellent performances. Allison Janney, as Harding’s abusive mother, is incredible. Paul Walter Hauser turns in a wonderfully greasy performance as Gillooly’s friend Shawn, the apparent “mastermind” of the attack on Kerrigan. He portrays the sort of sweaty, self-aggrandising loser that everyone in the audience will recognize.
Tonya Harding was a hardscrabble, supposedly "redneck" girl who could skate better than anyone else. But the skating community was caught up in its sexist, classist visions of ladylike behavior so she never really got the credit she deserved, even before “The Incident”. Unlike Kerrigan, Harding was never the right girl to become America’s Sweetheart, and ended up a nineties punchline as ubiquitous and one-note as O.J. Simpson or Monica Lewinsky. I, Tonya, though it paints her as being as much a victim as Kerrigan, does nothing to redeem the woman behind the story from punchline (and punching bag) status.