By Gregg Shapiro
Photos: courtesy of NEON
Each year, there are more and more movies depicting the lives of real people and historical events. 2017 was no exception. From World War II (“Dunkirk” and “The Darkest Hour”) to the 1970s (“The Post”, “All the Money in the World” and “Battle of the Sexes”) and the near-present day (“Molly’s Game”), there was no shortage of material to be dramatized onscreen.
One such movie, “I, Tonya” (Neon), stands out from the rest for its inventive and memorable approach to storytelling. “Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gilooly”, director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers present a hilarious, frightening and deservedly unflattering portrait of ambition, competition and abuse.
“I, Tonya” alternates between interview segments featuring disgraced skater Tonya (Oscar-nominee Margot Robbie in a career-defining performance), her violent ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan), her sadistic mother LaVona (Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated Allison Janney), Hard Copy reporter Martin (the ubiquitous Bobby Canavale) and others, and being an explosive journey through Tonya’s soul-crushing childhood and adolescence. The movie regularly melts the fourth wall, permitting characters to directly address the audience mid-scene. This device is both effective and surreal.
LaVona, with a Crimson-bellied parrot perched on her shoulder during her interview segments, describes Tonya, the fifth child from her fourth husband, as “spoiled” and “a handful”. But she never takes credit for creating the monster that was her daughter. Raising Tonya as a potential meal ticket, LaVona pushes an underage Tonya on skating coach Diane (the underrated Julianne Nicholson). Initially hesitant, Diane takes the poor redneck girl under her wing and grooms her into a medal-winning champ.
Accustomed to taking abuse from the relentlessly cruel LaVona, Tonya’s life takes a decisive turn for the worse when, at 15, she gets involved with the brutal Jeff. Nevertheless, Tonya is able to remain focused on her goal of becoming a skating Olympic medalist. Unfortunately, Jeff’s pathologically stupid and dishonest sidekick Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), who also functions as Tonya’s bodyguard, has undue influence over Jeff, leading to the planning and carrying out of the infamous 1994 assault on skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver).
In case you didn’t think the twisted tale of Tonya Harding and her cohorts wasn’t bizarre enough on its own, the final sequence, in which Harding, admitting to doing what she can to stay in the public eye and make money, can be seen as a “lady boxer” seals the deal. Skating on thin ice has never been this entertaining. Blu-ray + DVD + Digital bonus features include deleted scenes, Gillespie’s film commentary and five featurettes, including “All Sixes: The Perfect Performances of I, Tonya” and “Irony Free, Totally True: The Story Behind I, Tonya”. Rating: A-