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Sunday, February 04, 2018

I, Tonya

I, Tonya is one of the most entertaining bio-pics I have ever seen.  It simultaneously managed to make me laugh, cringe, anger me, make me tearful, and ultimately make me feel completely and utterly enthralled.  Based on "irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly" (as the opening credits inform us), the movie is a whirlwind telling of Harding's life, leading up to the infamous 1994 knee-bashing of Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s Olympic skating teammate and rival, and the aftermath that followed.

The movie is told using both dramatic recreations, and "interview" segments with the actors portraying the characters talking to the camera in documentary-style clips.  Even in the recreation moments, the characters will occasionally break the fourth wall, and turn to the camera, such as when a character will do something awful to someone else, and then they will stop the action to tell the audience "this never happened, by the way".  The genius of the film is how even though the film is told mostly from Tonya Harding's point of view, we also get the viewpoints of the other people in her life, and their contradicting opinions on what really happened.  Sometimes, the movie will go split screen, with Harding (played here in a career-topping performance by Margot Robbie) and her ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) giving us their personal view of what happened, and acting as bickering narrators.

We meet the couple first in the present day, both at middle age and far from their days of tabloid fame, and then are drawn in flashbacks which depict Harding's troubled home life growing up, her fateful meeting with Jeff, and her struggles to make a name for herself in the professional ice skating world, where she never truly fit in.  Director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) seems to be having a blast telling this story.  His take can be satirical, darkly hilarious, and sometimes even heartfelt and tragic.  He knows when the story is supposed to be crazy and over the top, and when we are supposed to be sympathizing with these people.  It's a genius high wire act of tone and narrative, and it turns the film into such a tremendously enjoyable experience that seems to fly right by.  And at the center of it all is Robbie's performance, who is able to handle the film's severe tonal shifts as deftly as possible.  She can be funny, rough, sympathetic, and strong whenever the film calls her to be.  She joins the long list of memorable female performances that have graced 2017.

Joining her in those ranks is Allison Janney, who portrays Tonya's mother, LaVona Golden.  She is a chain-smoking, abrasive, physically and verbally abusive woman, and Janney plays her to hilarious perfection.  Her LaVona pushes Tonya to her limits physically and emotionally.  And when her daughter doesn't meet her lofty expectations, she is not above beating her with a hairbrush, or pushing her to the floor.  Janney plays these scenes with a mix of spiteful venom, but also with a strong twinge of dark comedy.  In one scene, she throws a steak knife at her daughter, which gets stuck right in Tonya's arm.  This is an act that has been disputed and questioned for years, but the movie plays this moment brilliantly, by letting the shock of the violent act sink in to the audience with having the two women just stare awkwardly at each other after it happens, and then immediately cutting to the present day LaVona in an "interview" segment, saying "Well, what family doesn't have its ups and downs"?

I, Tonya is electric as it races through different points in Harding's life.  We see the awkward early moments of her relationship with Jeff (they met as teens, and she basically fell in love with him because he was the first guy who ever said she was beautiful) , and how that relationship eventually became abusive.  Again, the genius here is that we get the point of view of both characters, with Jeff taking a kind of victim mentality, saying that he was the one abused instead of Tonya's narrative of him being a controlling monster.  It's also around this point that we meet Jeff's friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), an overweight man living with his parents who acts as Tonya's bodyguard when she starts to become famous, and in a self-delusional way, sees himself as some kind of top secret agent whose skills are in demand all over the world.  He is the one who gets the ball rolling with the attack on Tonya's rival, Kerrigan, and sets up the film's equally energetic second half.

Here, the movie takes on an even more comedic tone, as it plays up the fact that Shawn and the people he hired to pull off the attack really did not know what they were doing, and how they did very little to cover their tracks.  According to this movie, it's a miracle the attack even went off as planned, given how disorganized Shawn and his cohorts were.  The movie takes on a semi-slapstick tone during this scene, while still keeping itself in reality.  We can buy that these were stupid criminals who were in over their heads, and we can buy that what we're watching actually happened, as unbelievable as it may come across.  Here again, the movie strikes a difficult yet perfect tone of humor and shock, as we see how brazen these guys were, as well as how idiotic, with Shawn bragging to everyone and anyone that he was behind the Kerrigan attack.  These are some of the most hilarious moments in any movie last year, and include some big laughs.

As funny as the movie is, there is always something very dark at the center, and that is Tonya's constant and desperate need for acceptance.  As the end credits play out, we watch a grainy video of Tonya nailing the difficult triple axel move at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championship (making her the first American woman to do so in a competition).  What strikes me is Tonya’s face after she performs the move — it’s marked by unfiltered, pure happiness. She has acceptance, if only for a moment, and she is thriving on it.  Robbie perfectly captures this aspect in her performance.  She never felt she got the love or respect she deserved from her mother, her husband, or even from the judges who would grade her skating performance.  She wanted to be her own woman out there on the ice, and she wanted the accolades and admiration and endorsement deals that she felt she deserved.  And when they did not come like she expected, she desperately clung to whatever small victory or personal happiness she could find.  And when scandal began to overtake her life, she did not know to handle it, and ultimately succumbed.  It is this basic desire for acceptance which puts us in her corner for much of the film, and gives the film a mark of tragedy.

In one of the final moments of I, Tonya, we see her as a female fighter in the boxing ring, long after her glory days have passed.  She takes a hit from her opponent, and begins to fall to the ground, blood spilling from her mouth, the audience cheering as she falls.  As this moment plays out, the movie also cuts to Tonya nailing the triple axel for the first time, and the audience rising to its feet in applause.  These two scenes cut back and forth, one with the audience cheering as she rises, and the other cheering as she falls.  It's a perfect metaphor for celebrity, and how no matter how much people will love you when you're at the top, they'll love you even more when they can kick you around when you're at the bottom.

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