I, Tonya

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Release Date: September 8, 2017 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Screened: September 9, 2017 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Runtime: 119 minutes
Rating: No Rating Yet
Studio: Miramax 
Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Margot Robbie; Sebastian Stan; Allison Janney; Julianne Nicholson; Bobby Cannavale; Caitlin Carver; Mckenna Grace; Paul Walter Hauser

Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya takes a ripped-from-the-headlines true story and infuses it with unexpected empathy. Invaluable assistance is provided from star Margot Robbie, whose performance here is even more star making than her showy breakout turn in Wolf of Wall Street. Her work, as well as that of co-stars Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney (not to mention director Gillespie and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis) should garner plenty of attention come awards time.

Focusing entirely on Olympic skater Tonya Harding and the hard knocks life she desperately tried to break free of, rather than dwelling solely on her well-known rivalry with fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan, the film punctuates the action with interviews, set years later, with Harding, her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Stan), her mother, LaVona (Janney), and assorted others in her shoddy circle of acquaintances. Raised by a mother who makes Mommie Dearest look like Mother Teresa, Harding is literally pushed onto the rink at scarcely four years old. As an adult with barely an education, all Harding has is skating. Unfortunately, her role models in life have left her gravely bereft of positivity and self-esteem. She marries Gillooly, the first boy to show her any sort of positive attention, even though he knocks her around every chance he gets. Of course, she assumes that every punch is deserved, as learned from her volatile (and that’s probably too gentle a word) relationship with LaVona. Harding gets sucked into a leave-him-and-return-to-him cycle that sees Gillooly constantly apologizing and Tonya coming back for more.

Harding is, of course, the first woman skater to ever land the fabled triple axel, and as her star rises as the 1992 Olympics approaches, her relationship with Gillooly becomes more and more fragile. The relationship, in this respect, began to remind me of the A Star is Born trajectory. The latter third of the film deals with “the incident” (the kneecap assault on Kerrigan that made all parties infamous) and the fallout there from.

Margot Robbie owns this movie: she’s a force to be reckoned with here. It would be so easy (albeit in a lesser film) for her to make Tonya Harding a caricature and an impersonation. However, Robbie manages to take a public figure, so loathed and maligned during her 15 minutes of fame, and expose her as an actual human being, one with hopes and dreams and her fair share of disappointments. In fact, most of Harding’s life was a huge disappointment; from her unfortunate upbringing at the hands of a horror show mother (Janney gives an awards-worthy performance) to her many disappointments in her professional skating career. There is one point late in the film where Robbie, enduring the full-scale onslaught of media attention as well as of the feds after the Kerrigan incident, where she is in her dressing room preparing for competition. Framed in a medium-shot, Robbie goes from barely holding it together to smiling pretty and back again. Robbie’s face displays all of the human emotions in less than a minute: it’s a remarkable feat of acting (I recalled, though did not compare, Diane Lane’s train ride back to the city after her affair in Unfaithful). Bravura, Margot!!

Sebastian Stan, who admittedly I knew of but was rather unfamiliar with his work other than, perhaps unjustifiably, his place as a pretty face, wowed me in I, Tonya with a ferocious performance as Jeff Gillooly. I haven’t seen an ex-husband so scorned and vicious since Eric Roberts in Star 80. And that’s saying something!!

A movie hasn’t placed me in the center of the action in a long time they way this film placed me on the ice with Robbie. The last time I recall such a visceral thrill of being in the action with the characters was when Jan de Bont put us on that bus in Speed. It’s thrilling to zoom around the ice and get an up-close-and-personal view of ice-skating and those spins and jumps. The breathtaking cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis must have been quite the hazardous undertaking. Usually I am pretty good about figuring out how certain complicated shots are achieved, but when we are zooming around that ice and the camera cranes up for an overhead shot and back down again, I was genuinely in awe of the technicality involved.

Steven Rogers’ script and Gillespie’s direction evoke the specific time and place (the 80s to early 90s low-income America) with an exactness that compliments the story, rather than draws attention to it.

I, Tonya is a film that takes a notorious tabloid story and unravels the notorious, keeps some of the tabloid, but most importantly, adds the humanity.

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