I, Tonya review Margot Robbie stillYear: 2017
Director(s): Craig Gillespie
Writer(s): Steven Rogers
Region of Origin: US

Rating: R
Digital, Color, 120 mins

Synopsis: Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes. (Source)

As America’s dependence on celebrity continues to skyrocket, I, Tonya, is the most relevant biopic out there. Director Craig Gillespie avoids all of the genre’s common trappings with a film that feels like a flaming middle-finger to the status quo. Rather than giving into the mold of clean, tidy Oscar bait, this is a sympathetic portrait of flawed, complex people, transformed into whatever a starving public wants them to be. Using a wildly entertaining and deliberately fractured narrative, Gillespie searches for the truth between fiction, and ends up with farce that’s both a riotous and a deeply felt tragedy. On top of it all, Margot Robbie, Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan deliver a triptych of irresistible performances, turning this white trash fairy tale into a film that’s too good to pass up.

The story, or stories contained within are presented under the guise of a faux doc, featuring an older Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), her mother, LaVonda Golden (Allison Janney) and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) recounting Harding’s life, from childhood, rise to fame, the infamous “incident” and beyond. After first impressions, the film takes us through Tonya’s rough upbringing, consistently second guessed by those around her, and constantly berated by a mother shaping her child into greatness through constant trials. From there, we learn of Tonya and Jeff’s abusive relationship, which offsets Tonya’s rise to fame with vivid depictions of domestic violence. Eventually, Tonya, LaVonda and Jeff’s oft-times contradictory accounts shine a light on the nature of celebrity worship, calling out a bloodthirsty public quick to adore heroes but relishing in their downfall like hungry vultures.

By fully leaning into his colorful characters and allowing them to tell their accounts via partially fictionalized testimony, Gillespie forces us to search past the surface. The film actually presents three sides to Tonya’s sordid story – the truth, each character’s perspective and public perception, suggesting that each of these angles aren’t complete without the other. It’s a smart way of being respectful to what actually happened, while forcing viewers to come up with their own conclusions. This cheeky structure also keeps things fun and irreverent, with split screens cutting between narratives and characters who constantly break the fourth wall to argue with each other and make snide asides directly to the audience. Though the film is sympathetic, it isn’t sentimental, and never shies away from the darkness beneath its absurdity, even as it couples its sting with pitch-black wit. At its core, Gillespie’s smart subversion of the biopic proves that behind each salacious headline, are people with real hopes, fears and frailties.

I, Tonya review Allison JanneyHelping to present the film’s clashing perspectives, are performances that are a knockout in every way. As the headliner, Robbie delivers a rebellious, headstrong Tonya. Robbie is thoroughly gripping, giving Tonya attitude and spunk but also a fragility and strength that are well hidden. Given the character’s complexity, what Robbie turns in is no small feat, transforming throughout and delivering a character that is as endearing as she is fierce. Standing toe-to-toe with Robbie, Allison Janney is a riot as LaVonda. Arguably a real-life cartoon character, Janney is brutal, delivering verbal assaults with deadpan authority. Though her character could’ve merely been a caricature, Janney allows LaVonda to rise above her character’s insanity, presenting subtle cracks in a bulletproof exterior. Stan’s Jeff adds chaos, and is tender and sincere until he’s a full-fledged monster. Stan is a perfect foil for the women in the film, flexing like a rubber-band and occupying the tonal space between both Robbie and Janney.

As wild and strange as the film is, however, a lot of it is shockingly lifted from real life, and the allure is that truth is almost always stranger than fiction. Gillespie treads a fine line throughout, giving us insanity lined with understated emotion and laughs that help us to cope with his story’s bitter reality. I, Tonya couldn’t have come along at a more perfect time, and is a sobering reminder that people are bigger than the boxes we put them in.

SG