Toward the end of “I, Tonya,” the acerbic and whip-smart tribute to Tonya Harding, the heroine (Margot Robbie) drawls flatly: “The haters always say, Tonya, tell the truth. There’s no such thing as truth.” It’s an apt thesis for a film that dives into the swirling narratives surrounding the scandal-prone figure skater, and dredges up something that feels real. Shockingly, it also feels redemptive.
Get ready to cheer for America’s most reviled ice princess in Craig Gillespie’s biopic, which impugns our collective love affair with beautiful figure skaters, as well as our bloodlust for cat fights. “I, Tonya” is a ferociously meta piece of filmmaking. “I never did this,” Tonya says, looking into the camera, as she fires a shotgun at her husband during a violent fight.
The film is tragic tale of abuse and oppression. Young Tonya is brought onto the ice at age 4 by her chain-smoking mother, and for the next 20 years, that is all she knows. It is her only talent, her only trade, her only way up and out of her harrowing existence.
The script positions Tonya not just as an object of fascination for America but emblematic of America itself. Her coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) says, “People either love Tonya, or they’re not big fans, just like people love America or they’re not big fans.”
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Coming from nothing, Tonya boot-strapped her way to the top, battling an unstable home life, poverty and an abusive mother and boyfriend, to become the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition. But the way she’s judged harshly for her costumes and style prove that America is not, and never has been, a meritocracy. The final blow comes courtesy of her abusive ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who bumbled his way into hiring thugs to kneecap Nancy Kerrigan. It’s an age-old tale: Men ruin everything.
In possibly the film’s most searing indictment of America’s obsession with fame, Tonya, during an interview segment, looks directly into the camera and says, “It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you … You’re all my attackers, too.” After watching the harrowing verbal and physical abuse she endured, it’s not an easy accusation with which to sit.
“I, Tonya” walks an impossibly tight rope, flip-flopping from dark to funny to darkly funny. The outlandish and visceral film has a shaggy dog appeal, and it never stops talking. At the heart is a fully committed Robbie, who embodies Tonya’s stubborn fire and gives her the dignity she was never afforded. By the time the real footage of the triple axel rolls, you’ll be on your feet.
Rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity. 1:59. Fayette, Hamburg.