Who would have thought the saga of disgraced Olympic figure-skating star Tonya Harding would have made for anything but a sleazy exploitative tale of scandal that someone like Lifetime might want to make? But in the hands of smart screenwriter Steven Rogers and equally sharp director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), I, Tonya turns out to be one of the year’s most welcome and darkly funny surprises.
Covering the waterfront of Harding’s life from when her domineering mother pushed her onto the world stage of figure skaters, through her emerging stardom on the ice to becoming a promising U.S. Olympian to the scandal where she tried to violently eliminate her main competitor Nancy Kerrigan and a marriage that involved domestic abuse — this film has it all but chooses a Rashomon-like storytelling device to play it all out onscreen.
As I say in my video review above, Gillespie and Rogers bracket their film with documentary-style interviews with the principal subjects, who all seem to be telling a completely different story of what happened. Although Rogers did his research in speaking with Harding and Jeff Gillooly (Harding’s now-ex-husband and mastermind of the scandal that would take her down), the real truth of what happened seems somewhere in the weeds. That also goes for the take-no-prisoners interview with her mother LaVona Golden, who sits perched with a pet parakeet pecking at her face as she faces the camera to tell all from her distinctly colorful point of view.
The film cuts back and forth in a non-traditional biopic way to put the pieces of the Harding puzzle together. Other characters turn up along the way to help out, but Gillespie gets his real mojo going in the casting of his main lead characters. Margot Robbie is sensational and really deserves the gold on her own as Harding, then and now. She convincingly handles the skating work (with the help of a double) and the role of a complex woman who was ridiculed publicly for trying to knock Kerrigan (Caitlin Carter) out of the competition but whose own past clearly played a key role with an abusive mother and husband. It is the best showcase the Australian Robbie has yet had onscreen, and she delivers in spades and spandex.
But the film nearly is stolen by Allison Janney’s wickedly funny romp as Golden, the stage mother from hell. She makes Gypsy Rose Lee’s terror of a mother look like a piker by comparison. That Janney can turn this would-be monster into something three-dimensional and even empathetic (occasionally) is a grand feat of acting by any account. This is a fierce, funny and unapologetic supporting turn that is second to no one, and all she had to go on was some brief interview footage of LaVona with that parakeet — the real LaVona is AWOL. Whether what she says in the film is the gospel truth or just conjecture really doesn’t matter. In Janney’s hands, this is one hell of a mother.
Also very fine is Sebastian Stan, who does everything he can with the complicit and violent Gillooly. I loved Bobby Cannavale’s bit as a Hard Copy producer who lived off the scraps of Harding’s brief infamy. Julianne Nicholson also is very fine in her scenes as Harding’s former coach. Gillespie and Rogers go into dark places here but never lose the black-comedy tone of the piece, and a large part of that is due to a cast that gets it exactly right.
Producers are Tom Ackerley and Brian Unkeless in addition to Robbie and Rogers. Neon/30WEST opens the film in an Oscar-qualifying run Friday.
Do you plan to see I, Tonya? Let us know what you think.