Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) has been a figure skater her entire life, starting at the age of 4 (or 3, depending on how you interpret the line “She’s a soft 4”). Her mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) was constantly getting on her case about not being good enough, believing it would encourage Tonya to strive for greatness to prove her wrong. Coming from a poor “hillbilly” background, Tonya couldn’t afford the expensive costumes for competition – so she made them herself… something the judges dinged her on with lower scores than she deserved.
Along the way, Tonya met and married Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) who – in between bouts of intense spousal abuse – would do everything he could for her to succeed… which, as anyone alive in the early 90s knows, eventually led to putting out a hit on Tonya’s main opponent: Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver).
I, Tonya is a biopic that covers the life of the infamous ice skater, told often through conventional cinematic means, but then interspersed with a mock-umentary feel as we see and hear interviews with Tonya, her mother, Jeff, Jeff’s friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), Tonya’s trainer Diane (Julianne Nicholson) and others involved in the various intricacies of Tonya’s life leading up to “the incident”. Allison Janney plays one of the best antagonists I’ve seen in a drama in a very long time. Her trashy attitude mixed with her vile, intimidating stare makes her feel like a super villain on par with any of the over-powered baddies Marvel or DC could come up with. She plays the role of LaVona with such intensity and dedication; you can’t help but feel sorry for Tonya Harding for having to deal with that sort of nightmare parent.
Margot Robbie does a fine job in the title role of Tonya Harding. There were moments of pure brilliance in her portrayal of the redneck who wants to change her destiny. Unfortunately, I felt like those moments were few and fleeting. For most of the film, I felt like any actress could have played this part as good, if not better. But when those moments of brilliance came, it all clicked and came together and I understood why this actress was chosen. Paul Walter Hauser was also hilarious in his role of overweight, lying, espionage-wannabe Shawn. He brought the funny moments with an ease that made me think this could have been how this actor actually behaves. He was as on-point in his role as the plucky but dumb sidekick as Allison Janney was in her beyond-over-bearing mother role. The rest of the cast was pretty forgettable.
The special effects in this film were a major downfall. The scenes in which Tonya was skating in front of large crowds felt like a bunch a high school kids testing out their new green screen and Adobe After Effects. The rotoscoping was painfully obvious and killed any production value the film had going for it. For these scenes, they could’ve/should’ve taken their cue from Disney, as films like The Mighty Ducks and Ice Princess never had these problems… and they were made 25 and 12 years ago respectively. Surely, with as far as FX technology has come, there’s no good reason for these scenes to have this bizarre low-budget sci-fi appearance? I can’t understand the decision to let this film go to the public looking like that.
I’m also left scratching my head as to why screenwriter Steven Rogers (who also wrote Hope Floats, Kate & Leopold, and the wildly popular P.S. I Love You) chose Tonya Harding as a subject matter. Sure, we feel sorry for Tonya because of her mother and perhaps a bit from the way judges treated her for looking as poor as she was… but that’s where our empathy for the character ends. For being such a protectionist, Tonya Harding is portrayed as a whiney, sniveling baby, making one bad decision after another and constantly laying the blame on everyone other than herself.
I quickly got tired of hearing “but that wasn’t my fault” and “that’s not fair” when she was obviously projecting herself down the wrong path at every turn. Some things in the film were unfair and not her fault like who she was born to and the station of life she was in during her early years… but many of the mistakes made were here own and I couldn’t empathize with her blaming others for everything.
Overall, I, Tonya took some interesting risks. Some of them worked, others didn’t. The acting made this movie endurable even when its subject matter and pacing were not. If you’re a fan of the sport of ice skating, this is an interesting film that reveals a lot of behind-the-scenes secrets. If you love indie dramas, the acting alone makes this a must-see for you. But, while I know this film is getting award show buzz, I can’t figure out why beyond actress and supporting actress. This was not “best picture” material in my mind, and often felt more like a Lifetime Original Movie than something the Academy of Arts & Sciences should consider for an Oscar.