Review: ‘I, Tonya’ (no kidding)

Every interview — true or not — presented to the court of public opinion.

From humble beginnings, or what some refer to as the wrong side of the tracks, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) had a dream to become a competitive ice skater and had a natural talent for it… and perhaps a bit of fearlessness. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) was against it until the possibility of making money off of her daughter entered the equation, that and other people willing to develop Tonya’s latent talent. Without the money, pedigree, or upbringing that traditional skate stars often come from, Tonya had few people to count upon, including questionable boyfriend Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and his hapless friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), all leading up to what everyone remembers on January 6, 1994 as “the incident.”

Neither completely fiction nor a documentary, I, Tonya has been constructed in linear order from interviews of the people involved, even when those accounts differed from one another. The result is a bizarre peek into the motivations and misrememberings of a speeding train about to derail, but everything may not be as black and white as it appears. While neither an admission of guilt nor an exoneration, will viewers be convinced that Tonya Harding might have been put into an impossible situation where those determined to keep her dreams from coming true finally got their wish?

It’s the “Jerry Springer” version of the ice skating world, a time and place where the unimaginable happened: one US Olympian assaulting another competitor on the same Winter Olympics team. Worse yet, it seemed completely believable that the “trailer trash” skater would stoop to the unthinkable, but as shown in this interview interpretation, it may not be a simple as that. While the crime was committed and those accused likely guilty for their parts, a young girl’s dream may also have been torpedoed to the point where she had no choice but accept being banned from the sport so many felt she never belonged. I, Tonya doesn’t ask for forgiveness, only some understanding of what a talented person without privilege was up against from the very beginning.

Both Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan disappear into their characters to the point of being almost unrecognizable; you might even think you know them or people very like them by story’s end. Allison Janney embodies an abusive mother looking to take advantage of every situation and unable to see past her own needs for anyone, even when you want to believe she could. As the story unfolds, it seems inevitable some tragedy or scandal would eventually result, but to have it play out on the world stage in an event that would shock the sports world and victimize Nancy Kerrigan seemed unthinkable — until it happened.

One heartbreaking scene depicts Tonya confronting a judge over a bad competition call and his admission (off the record, of course) that Tonya would always be viewed through a filter of intolerance, that no one wanted to see “someone like her” compete. For anyone ever told they couldn’t do what they are capable of and should be allowed to do, it isn’t difficult to empathize.

I, Tonya is rated R for pervasive language, violence, some sexual content/nudity, and not being able to look away.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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