Neon and 30 WEST went through tense negotiations to acquire distribution rights for Margot Robbie’s I, Tonya. Robbie produced the film with her husband under their production label, LuckyChap. Neon and 30WEST are skating away with gold, because I, Tonya is a real winner.
The biopic, directed by Craig Gillespie, follows the infamous Olympic skater, Tonya Harding. It chronicles Harding’s upbringing in a dysfunctional redneck home with her unforgiving and cruel mother, played by Alison Janney, and her abusive relationship with Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan. Those are the two key relationships in Harding’s life. We follow these relationships throughout her life until the infamous “incident” and the aftermath. For those who do not know, the incident is the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s skating rival. A man attempted to break Harding’s knee to sabatage her Olympic chances back in 1994.
The performances across the board are fantastic. After it’s debut at TIFF, Janney and Robbie have been recognized by critics as potential Oscar nominees. Janney is a definite shoe-in, she had the difficult task of making Harding’s mother somewhat likable and she is absolutely brilliant. Robbie’s performance as Harding is also amazing. As tough and stubborn as Harding is, Robbie is able to convey the underlining vulnerability and fragility of Harding. Stan is excellent at creating a complicated character like Gillooly who like Harding gained infamy for his part in the “incident.” One flaw that can be pointed to regarding the cast is Kerrigan, played by Caitlin Carver, who barely has any screen time or a point of view. The film solely focuses on Harding and the key players in her life. Perhaps a scene or two with Kerrigan would have created a fully fleshed out story, but the film overall does not suffer by the lack of Kerrigan.
The filming is magnificent, and completely unexpected. Sport biopics, and true crime stories follow a very simple formula, however, I, Tonya, throws that formula out the window and is an entirely unique take on a sports star and a real-life crime. The uniqueness of the film is entirely due to the unique nature of this whole story, which is nearly entirely true. There is the case of unreliable narrators to take into consideration, but the story does not stray far from the truth. The truth being, a bunch of idiot rednecks orchestrated the takedown of a potential Olympic star, and failed to get away with it.
Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers craft a compelling and devastating story with care and a surprising amount of comedy. The absurdity of the situation allows the creative team to dive head first into the comedy, and it works. The moments where we see Harding’s personal turmoil, her love for skating, and her desperation for love and adoration are not hindered by the comedy. In fact the comedy and drama make Harding’s story that much more compelling and devastating. A promising career and a personal triumph was kneecapped by stupidity.
I, Tonya is a delicate, bold, and dangerous balancing act, reminiscent of the incredibly difficult triple axel, a skating move that is either career-defining or career-ending, and Robbie and company sticks the landing.