The poster for I, Tonya sets it up well. A woman standing defiant against a wall, hoping to rise above a childhood that doomed her for life.
America wanted Tonya Harding (ferociously played by Margot Robbie) to be something that she absolutely was not: a wholesome sweetheart with a wonderful family who also had Olympic level figure skating chops. Craig Gillespie's biopic, I, Tonya, portrays in rebellious punk rock fashion, the rise and fall of one of the United States most (in) famous sports figures.
Seriously, if you think you know all there is about this tragically comical true story, you're dead wrong.
Raised by a decrepit mother (Allison Janney, going full tilt ruthless here) who sipped whiskey on the ice at skating practice while yelling obscenities at Tonya and her coach (Julianne Nicholson), the Portland, Oregon native never stood a chance with the Nancy Kerrigans of the world. She was reckless white trash to voters, but a wild story that news channels couldn't get enough of.
She competed for the Olympics twice, was the first American to complete a triple axe in competition, and found enormous success before the age of 23-but saw her life unravel due to poor decisions off the ice, including marrying the dim-witted and abusive Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Jeff conspired with his even less-minded friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) to help boost Harding's career by damaging another skater's path, but in reality, it was his Harding herself who drowned herself in misery by clinging to the wrong people for long stretches of her younger years.
Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers do the audience a favor by pulling no punches about the uglier parts of Harding's life, serving up her low points like a hilariously out of hand reality show that doesn't require a filter. Seeing Gillooly punch, kick, and slam Harding into a wall repeatedly, only to remain in her life, tells you all that you need to know about the central subject. She couldn't cut out the bad in her life, thus the good was lost. The details of Harding's struggle make for a riveting drama, but the hilarity along the way isn't forgotten.
This is a movie where you will walk out feeling sorry for someone who was born with a gift, yet couldn't get out of her own way or escape her upbringing. Gillespie and Rogers never shy away from showing you everything, which gives the film an unconventional swagger. Her story isn't carved into a single scene more potently than the one featuring a judge telling Harding after a meet that she isn't what voters want to project across the world. It's a bittersweet tale, but told right.
Robbie is amazing as Harding, filling out the physical appearance as well as digging into the determined nature that aided her rise. There are great performances and then there are actresses going all the way. Robbie starts at the former and retires at the latter by the end of the film. This is her breakthrough performance; a piece of work that only she could have pulled off so well. One of Harding's gifts (and her setbacks) was being brutally honest with everyone in her life, as well as the audience. Robbie is a firecracker with Rogers' script, which breaks the story up into flashbacks between past and present.
Let's be honest: Janney deserves the Oscar for supporting performance. LaVona is a downright nasty woman who has zero worries left to give as the mother of a superior athlete, and that's when the girl is just four years old. Janney's strengths have gotten a fine stage in films like Juno and The Help, but this is her crowning achievement. When LaVona is hurling plates and knives at her daughter during a dining room table fight, you'll shake your head while laughing out loud. When she is complaining about a bird nipping her eye during the story retelling, you'll laugh some more. She makes Laurie Metcalf's overbearing mother in Lady Bird look like Mary Poppins. It's the kind of performance that waits around for an actress to knock out of the park.
Stan does great work as an imperfect man who can't live with the idea that he is ordinary and limited. This isn't your grandfather's Winter Soldier, ladies and gents. The actor surprised me here with a performance that I didn't think he had in him. Hauser is known for the lovable yet twisted Keith on Audience Network's MMA series, Kingdom, but his Shawn is a different blend of absurd who lives in a limitless tank of deniability.
Tonya Harding's gift was the ability to skate like few others, but her life off the ice broke her gift in half. She lost before she even stepped foot inside the rink. What I, Tonya manages to do with two hours is give us a complete look at her downfall without a single ounce of glossing over or shortcuts. If any sports figure deserved a cinematic touch, it's Harding. Robbie, Janney, Stan, and Gillespie really nailed this tale by going for broke and giving the bittersweet true story a fair dose of punk rock rebellion.
I went into Joe Wright's Darkest Hour with little concrete knowledge about what made Winston Churchill tick. I was blown away by what I saw. I had the same deal with I, Tonya, going in with few details, thus maximizing the impact of the tale. There is only one way to tell a story about a figure skater rising to success, getting entangled with the FBI, and becoming a boxer: relentless and straight forward.
There are happily ever after sports tales where the hero or heroine wins the big game or medal in the end-and then there is Tonya Harding.
Forget about Den of Thieves and Jumanji, and check this film out.