I, Tonya

Tonya Harding strikes a pose in I, Tonya

“America. They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate. I mean, come on! What kind of frigging person bashes in their friend’s knee? Who would do that to a friend?”

Biopic films have, to me, always seemed like pieces of a far-off history, far removed from my actual life. It’s very rare that one hits as close to home as I, Tonya did. Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) and starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney, this tells the real-life story of Tonya Harding, the infamous figure skater whose scandal rocked the world in the 90s. It’s a story I got a periphery glance at, through media headlines and rumors passed around school, but I never knew Tonya—only the scandal. This film lets you know Tonya, and it does an amazing job of bringing her to life in a way that’s not only sympathetic but also tragic. In-between tragic events are darkly funny happenings and self-aware humor that keep this from getting too depressing. This is a great story that adds some depth to events that I remember from my childhood, and it’s definitely one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen.

The story follows Tonya Harding, an aspiring figure skater blessed with immense talent but cursed with a highly dysfunctional family and a life of poverty. Tonya is a natural in ice skates, but does not fit the mold for other aspects of a figure skater’s life—she’s rough and rowdy, she can’t afford the nice uniforms and makeovers the other contestants have, and her family life is significantly less than wholesome. The climax is, of course, “the incident,” as Tonya calls it in the film, but I was surprised by how everything actually went down. This is, at its heart, a scrappy underdog story, but don’t expect Rocky levels of wholesomeness.

I was loved for a minute, then I was hated. Then I was just a punchline.

The character Tonya Harding is the most interesting thing here, and the reality of the person is much more interesting than the poor caricature that came through in the news cycle in the 90s. She’s a tragic character, although not a hero—you feel bad for her, but I don’t know that anyone would want to emulate her behavior. Margot Robbie gives an excellent performance, showing both the dogged determination and the subtle insecurities of Tonya without shying away from her less than noble attributes. I lived in a small Southern town for years, and this film nails American poverty with a level of realism rarely seen in film. It’s not always pretty, but it’s brutally real, and reality works a lot better than beauty in this story.

Tonya grinning maniacally with blood on her face in I, Tonya
The humor in the film is already pretty dark, but it’s taken up several notches in a few fourth wall-breaking moments.

This film does a great job of showing dark subjects like abuse and broken relationships as the everyday occurrences they were for the characters here. Again, no one should emulate any of this behavior, but in showing how prepared Tonya is to deal with these adversities, it shows how deeply entrenched she was in that world. She even turns to humor in the face of some atrocities as a coping mechanism. This does not glorify or condone violence, but it does show how some people are forced to live their lives. In a story full of tragedies, the fact that abuse is merely a backdrop may be the greatest tragedy of all, and that’s a large part of what the filmmakers were trying to get across. Because of the world she lives in, every relationship Tonya has is broken in some way, and her attempts to escape or repair the damage are depressingly unsuccessful.

I, Tonya is a fantastic biopic that brings to life a person we all know of, but few of us truly know. The dark humor and tragic events are a far cry from heroic biopics like Lawrence of Arabia and Schindler’s List, but I think we need more stories that aren’t explicitly heroic. This film is also one of the better underdog stories out there, and shows us an underdog with a lot more to overcome than a simple character flaw that holds her back. I have to admit, after watching this, I kind of love Tonya Harding. I don’t excuse any of her faults, but I definitely respect how hard she had to work to overcome everything in her life. This, in my opinion, is one of the best things a biopic can do.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 2:00
Director: Craig Gillespie
Year: 2017
Genres: biopic, comedy, drama, indie
Rating: R

1 thought on “I, Tonya”

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