The end of a year always invites the opportunity to reflect on what happened in the previous 12 months. Most of us like to make sense of it by identifying common themes; we make narratives. We become storytellers. In movies, the professional storytellers often – maybe in a sort of collective unconscious – gather around certain themes in any given year.
But maybe I’m going about this backwards. Maybe those of us who watch too many movies just see patterns and themes where we want. Either way, a major thread running through some of the best movies of 2017 involves the theme of class. Specifically, they explored the economically disadvantaged in a compassionate, empathetic way. Movies like Lady Bird and The Florida Project introduced us to people either living close to poverty or people who can’t escape it. Both pictures did it without being exploitative. They brought their subjects to life in a thoughtful, humanist way.
The economic underclass is a major preoccupation of I, Tonya, as well. Like The Florida Project, I, Tonya’s subject, who just happens to be a real-life person, is proud and unapologetic. I, Tonya is a punk rock look at poverty, among other things. It’s also, improbably, one of the most hilarious movies of 2017. Its humor is biting and sarcastic. It isn’t afraid to call its audience out as hypocrites for watching the story of Tonya Harding with a sick voyeuristic glee.
Anyone over the age of about 35 probably doesn’t need to be told the real-life story on which I, Tonya is based. We remember the tabloid headlines and the wall-to-wall news coverage. Tonya Harding, an Olympic hopeful in figure skating, became an instant household name when associates of her husband, Jeff Gillooly, physically assaulted Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan, in a bid to knock her out of competition.
What most of us forget – even those of us who saw the story play out first hand – is that the events surrounding the attack on Kerrigan happened in the proverbial blink of an eye in the lives of those involved. Obviously, the attackers were responsible for assaulting a human being. That shouldn’t be trivialized or forgotten. But what makes I, Tonya brilliant is the way it complicates that one salacious story by forcing us to reckon with Tonya Harding as a whole person. I, Tonya makes Harding more than just the event for which we all remember her. She had a life full of struggle, achievements, disappointments, and victories leading up to the Kerrigan incident.
Screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie teamed up to remind us of this in the strongest terms possible. The movie uses the direct address technique in which almost all the main characters speak directly to the camera about their thoughts and feelings. These moments are based on archival interviews and ones the filmmakers conducted in recent years.
Tonya tells us the circumstances of her upbringing. She describes her mother’s, let’s say unique, parenting philosophy, and her tempestuous relationship with Gillooly. The reasons behind her no-bullshit demeanor become clearer as we get a deeper sense of who she is. We get similar moments with her mom, LaVona, and Gillooly, but Tonya is the main focus. The movie brings her to life in a way that is a rare achievement. I, Tonya is a brilliant and insightful character study.
Being a figure skater from a lower socioeconomic position comes with unique challenges, and Tonya isn’t shy in describing them. The judges wanted perfect upper-class princesses. That was something Tonya would never be able to provide. What she lacked in social niceties, she made up for in hard work, determination, and talent. The moments in the movie that document her successful completion of the triple axel are triumphant. She was only the second woman to land one in international competition, and she is currently one of only eight women to have ever achieved the jump. Still, she faced scores that she often felt were based more on her homemade skating outfits and her foul-mouthed mother than her skill on the ice.
She also managed to excel in her sport while Gillooly subjected her to brutal physical abuse, and here the movie is unflinching. In addition to poverty, I, Tonya challenges us to confront the realities of domestic abuse. Of course, Tonya herself doesn’t hesitate to let us know what she thinks of us. In the most powerful moment of the movie, the character looks straight at the camera and implicates us all in her suffering. She describes the media circus that ensued in the wake of the Kerrigan attack. Specifically, she talks about being turned into the butt of a thousand national jokes; she was called poor white trash in more ways than she could count. When pop culture assaulted her character, as her husband assaulted her body, we all became her abusers, she tells us. It made me squirm in my seat.
The performances in I, Tonya are nothing short of superb. I’ve been waiting to see Margot Robbie in a role that made me believe the hype I’ve been hearing since her appearance in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. She’s good in that film, and she is without a doubt the best thing about the disastrous Suicide Squad. She is transcendent as Tonya Harding. She owns the screen for every second she’s on it. The volatile, destructive chemistry between Robbie and Sebastian Stan, who plays Gillooly, is heart-breaking.
Allison Janney completely transforms herself to play LaVona, the Sports Mom from Hell. LaVona is belligerent and doesn’t suffer other human beings, let alone fools, lightly. Janney is brilliant by deciding to play the character as having a heart of fool’s gold, as opposed to the real thing. Because of that, LaVona is a much more delicious character than she otherwise would have been.
I, Tonya has been in limited release for a month as of this writing, with a scheduled wider release continuing into January. To date, it’s made only 2.6 million dollars against its budget of 11 million. That must not stand. This movie is deserving of a rapturous box-office reception. It’s one of the best of 2017, and if the movie gods are just, it will find a massive, appreciative audience.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
I, Tonya is a study in tone management. Gillespie is able to keep the black comedy and the mournful drama in a beautiful tension. The performances are all stellar. The movie also elicits an incredible amount of empathy for someone who was written off as a joke decades ago.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Hollywood can do a lot of amazing things with digital trickery, but pasting the face of an actor onto the body of a stunt person (here, they put Robbie's face on an actual ice skater) is not yet one of them. It doesn't look terrible, but it's certainly noticeable, and those moments took me right out of the movie.
- Bobby Cannavale has a hilarious bit part as a Hard Copy producer, and he gives insight into the media frenzy that took place around the Kerrigan incident. His best line is about how everyone in the respectable media at the time mocked shows like Hard Copy, and then the respectable media became Hard Copy. I laughed out loud at the line, because it's so true.
- Best Tonya-Harding-is-a-bad-ass bit in the movie: Tonya stubbing out a cigarette with her ice skate.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- Pretty small crowd for this one, which is a shame. But, they were well behaved, so I had that going for me, which... was nice.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- The effort to get clean-up done on all the 2017 releases I still haven't seen is in full swing. Next, I'll be looking at director Guillermo del Toro's cold war monster movie, The Shape of Water, where said monster bears a striking resemblance to The Creature from the Black Lagoon.