I, Tonya is the Opening Night feature of the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival, screening this evening. It will be opening in New York and Los Angeles in December before going into wider release in 2018.
There was a certain period of the 1990s, where you could not escape Tonya Harding. The figure skating star at the center of a scandal involving her husband, a body guard and an attack on a competing rival found herself propelled into a tabloid maelstrom that had her the topic of conversation from water coolers to late night talk show hosts’ monologues. But what led up to that fateful moment? That’s the story that is explored in the darkly comic bio-pic I, Tonya.
I, Tonya is a great pick for the first film from Robbie’s new production company LuckyChap Entertainment. It is a film that showcases her in a well written lead but which still allows for a number of surrounding supporting players that keep the affair from feeling like a vanity project.
Robbie shines as the eponymous figure skater whose firebrand attitude, raw talent and rebellious rejection of the image the sport wished to project propelled her to the status of rock star. Of course, it was her connection to the assault on fellow Olympic team hopeful Nancy Kerrigan propelled her into tabloid headlines stardom. Tonya frequently exclaims “It’s not my fault,” and she is certainly not to blame for the abusive treatment she received from her abusive mother and the father that left her in that situation. As Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly, Sebastian Stan continues his chameleon like career of disappearing into roles, never once reminding you 0f his work in other films like Logan Lucky or Captain America. Allison Janey’s work as Tonya’s cold shrew of a mother leaves one wondering how this woman ever married once, let alone five times.
Director Craig Gillespie’s camera imparts energy into the proceedings as it stalks around scenes, looking for the comedic moment to pounce. For the skating sequences, he takes us out onto the rink with Tonya, circling and following her as she moves across the ice. It is not just a splashy visual flourish, but one that shows us that perhaps Tonya is only really happy in those three minutes or so were she is able to show the world how remarkable she is. The only time the energy level of the film seems to flag is as we get closer to the assault on Kerrigan, which everyone euphemistically calls “The Incident.” It is is easy to laugh at the antics of these boobs – as Bobby Cannavale’s Hard Copy reporter character describes them – when they’re on their own but it becomes harder to see the humor once an innocent is pulled into their idiotic orbit and harmed.
Gillespie and screen writer Steven Rogers do resort to the cliche of having the subjects of the film comment on the goings-on in cut away “interview” segments. They are helpful in that it allows the film to give us more information on the characters’ state of mind or the importance of performing a triple-axle in competition. But they also take things a step further and use the device to make meta-commentary on the film itself, such as Janney’s LaVonna breaking in at one point to complain that her storyline is “disappearing.”
But the cutaways do more than just serve up information or comic beats. They also serve to remind us that no one is a reliable narrator here. The portrayal of events described by one person is not necessarily what plays out on screen. To further muddy the waters, the end credits features interview footage with their real life counterparts saying the exact things that seemed so ridiculous in the text of the film itself. But it does raise the question of how much more of what we see in the film is drawn from real life or has been fictionalized. It’s the friction between these two possibilities that ironically, make it the most honest of bio-pics in a long time.