Arts movie review

‘What kind of frigging person bashes in their friend’s knee?’

‘I, Tonya’ is a fresh black comedy that humanizes a polarizing figure

I, Tonya
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Screenplay by Steven Rogers
Rated R, now playing

“Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” are the words that begin I, Tonya, director Craig Gillespie’s edgy biopic about the polarizing figure skater, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie). Two-time national champion Harding was infamous in the early ’90s for her association with the knee-smashing of her biggest skating competitor, Olympic medalist Nancy Kerrigan. Through fictional, re-created interviews with the characters, I, Tonya tells the story of Harding’s controversial skating career from its inception when her caustic cigarette-toting mother (Allison Janney) drags her onto the ice at age four through her international success and eventual association with “the incident,” as the characters sardonically refer to it throughout the film.

Robbie is sensational as Harding. Beyond her ability to speak in a flawless Oregonian accent despite her Australian origins and to do a large portion of the ice skating herself, she is able to truly capture Harding’s feisty, unapologetic spirit from the first moment she appears on screen casually, yet bluntly smoking a cigarette. But underneath this harsh exterior, Robbie allows us to glimpse the fragile child who rose from poverty to find such bliss in skating and so desperately yearned for love from a mother who gave her nothing but criticism and abuse. The audience is able to understand all she’s been through, viscerally feeling her every triumph and downfall. As a competitive athlete myself forced to retire due to injury, Harding’s final fate seemed a tragedy and I cried right along with her.

Despite its less than heartwarming subject, the film manages to carry off an oddly light-hearted tone, remaining amusing throughout. This black comedy has the audience laughing at totally inappropriate moments, like when Tonya asks “What kind of frigging person bashes in their friend’s knee?” or when she fires a rifle at her husband before directly denying to camera that this incident ever occurred. Such touches give the film a memorable, edgy tone — not unlike Tonya herself — while also constantly reminding us how murky the truth of this story truly is. However, while this tone leads to some uproarious moments, there are also times when it feels uncomfortable. The film is mocking the poor, uneducated perpetrators of the assault on Kerrigan as they very sloppily try to cover up a poorly thought out crime. These are real people we are being asked to laugh at, people who perhaps were not actually so one-dimensionally dumb as the film portrays them.

At its core, the film is a study in empathy, as most of the best films are. It asks Americans to see Harding in a different light, as a product of a turbulent, impoverished upbringing, with nothing in the world except figure skating. This darkly humorous telling of Tonya’s story along with Margot Robbie’s dynamic performance paint a surprisingly moving portrait of a controversial figure.