Tonya Harding is remembered less for her brief but influential time in the figure skating world than for her involvement in the infamous attack against fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan. But newly released biopic “I, Tonya” seeks to reclaim her narrative by telling Harding’s (Margot Robbie, “Suicide Squad”) life story as a bold and unorthodox skater. The film complicates Harding’s cultural legacy by exploring her life in and around skating from the age of four, bringing to light the emotional weight that contributed to whom she became as a skater and as a person. With a bright, punchy tone that reflects Harding’s infectious persona, the film is a hilarious, gripping and nuanced portrayal of a controversial pop culture figure.
For a movie that deals so heavily in the movement of figure skating, “I, Tonya” does a remarkable job designing static scenes. The film is peppered with retrospective, mockumentary-style interviews of Harding and the people in her life. The stylized framing and set design of these segments evokes the small-town America that Harding and company embody. The film also screams ’80s culture, from the pulsing ’80s soundtrack featuring bands like Dire Straights and Violent Femmes to the vibrant jewel tones of Harding’s costumes, makeup and scrunchies. Tonya’s look, her frizzy bangs and gaudy outfits, loudly clashes with the refined stuffiness of the figure skating elite. But her unique style and unapologetic attitude makes Harding an extremely likeable hero, and we root for her as she ignores convention and proves herself as one of the most technically proficient skaters in the league. The skating scenes themselves are the most visually stunning parts of the movie — as Harding performs, the camera whirls around her as if it, too, is on skates, creating this swirling circular movement that heightens the suspense and the artistry of the moment.
The brilliance of the film lies in its performances. Margot Robbie is incredible as Harding — she’s crude and unpolished, but with an innocent sincerity that makes her a natural underdog. The characters around Harding, who are notoriously abusive and problematic figures, are so well-cast that it makes disliking them next to impossible. Allison Janney (“Tallulah”) dominates in a stand-out role as Harding’s jagged mother, who routinely beats and verbally abuses Tonya in ways that clearly reveal her own lack of self-worth and deep-rooted unhappiness in life. She is eclectic, weird and, honestly, disturbing at times, but Janney’s performance leaves you eager for more screen time. Sebastian Stan (“Captain America: Civil War”) rounds out the main trinity as Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly, who is infamous for the climactic hired assault of Nancy Kerrigan. Gillooly is shown and described repeatedly as an unstable and abusive husband, beating Harding and then manipulating her every time she tries to leave him. But Sebastian Stan is just too goddamn charming to be a villain taken seriously.
That’s one of the major weird and maybe problematic parts of the movie — the tone is a confusing mix of hilarious dark comedy and genuine physical and emotional abuse. Harding is surrounded by people who take advantage of her and beat her down (literally and figuratively). But immediately after every instance of this, the film switches to a campy breaking of the fourth wall and a wise crack about rednecks. The only thing standing in the movie’s way, besides its slightly lengthy run time, is that it doesn’t seem to know exactly what it is — the movie is hilarious and fun, but also tragic and stressful. And as a result, the moments that reveal the hardships that may have led to Tonya’s inevitable crumbling are rendered disingenuous or superficial by the ever-present thread of humor.
“I, Tonya” is as unorthodox as its protagonist, the unlikely but passionate underdog that continues to surprise and impress. It tackles the Tonya Harding story with verve and sincerity, giving voice to a figure who has been largely disregarded by pop culture but whose talent and perseverance marked her as one of the most formative skaters in the history of the sport. She’s insane, she’s in your face and she’s sensational.