‘I, Tonya’ sticks landing

In a stacked field behind Frances McDormand and Sally Hawkins, it’s unlikely Margot Robbie will get the recognition she deserves for I, Tonya, but she’s been not getting the recognition she deserved since her very first role in Wolf of Wall Street. Fortunately, carrying a complex, high-level movie with a performance to match is the rule for her and not the exception — they’ll be calling her name on the Oscar stage for years to come. Image courtesy Neon.

9/10 In the early 1990s, trailer trash reject Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie, McKenna Grace as a child) bullied her way through prejudice to the height of figure skating artistry. The movie about her life, I, Tonya, follows right in her footsteps, fighting through its own white trash reality show plotline to reach the plateau of 2017 movies.

In the film, Harding grows up abused by her mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). Golden sees from an early age that she has a knack for figure skating and forces her to focus on it relentlessly, at the expense of any normal childhood or even schooling.

Harding eventually transitions to an abusive boyfriend and husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Now an Olympian, Harding receives death threats during her training for the 1994 games. Gillooly tries to send a similar threat to main rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), but the threat becomes an assault and spirals far enough out of control to end Harding’s skating career at just age 23.

Harding, Golden and Gillooly all to this day hold to completely incongruous accounts of their private lives with each other. The film is told as a retrospective, with the three principal characters arguing their version of events directly to the camera.

I, Tonya expertly controls its tone, turning this salacious, tabloid-driven story into a salacious, tabloid-driven movie while deftly navigating the truly dark elements of its plot. At its core, this is a movie about a young woman who has never known love that was not violently abusive, but the movie turns that into an understated, playful thing. It’s a spectacular tight-rope walk that makes the movie when it could have easily broken it — the violence is always distant and a little silly, but never minimized.

The movie becomes a strange, half-guilty joy to watch. Normally, a white trash trainwreck would stop being fun when things turn truly violent, but I, Tonya blows right past that. If anything, the fun tone only magnifies the tragedy of Harding’s all-world talent and fiery personality being trapped between her out-of-control home life and a skating association that just doesn’t like her very much.

There’s a problem inherent in sports movies, which often can’t recreate the events they’re portraying. Director Craig Gillespie reportedly wanted to find a stunt double to perform Harding’s signature triple axel jump so they could do it in-shot, but was told by consultants that only six other women in history had completed the jump in competition. Actresses who can both carry a movie at a high level the way Robbie does and are also one of the best figure skaters who ever lived are hard to come by, it seems. I, Tonya runs headlong into this issue and the figure skating scenes are some of the least eventful in the film, despite the months of work that went into them.

I, Tonya has repeatedly been called the Goodfellas of figure skating movies, and we need to find a better way to describe that style. Just about every fast-cutting, fourth-wall breaking jukebox movie gets compared to Goodfellas for sharing the aesthetic. It’s started to get annoying in advertising as more and more filmmakers for whom the Scorsese film was a touchstone make it big — though I could actually watch movies of that style all day.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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