“Based on a true story” has been a hook for decades of cinema history, but the storytelling generally requires more than a few asterisks. No big screen feature is ever 100 percent factual — be it because not enough specific information is available, things need to be spiced up for entertainment value, or a number of other reasons. The majority of titles skirt around this with discussions of “emotional truth” and by getting approval from those involved in the real tale… but Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is a unique feature within the way in which it grapples with this conundrum. Openly based on a story full of contradictions (it’s noted specifically in the title card), the film fully leans into the various lies and weirdness that rests within the “legend” of professional ice skater Tonya Harding, and constructs a crazy dark, harshly funny narrative that happens to produce some of the best performances of the year.
If you lived through the early 1990s (even as a young kid, as I was), you’re very likely aware of the notorious Tonya Harding. Prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics, she found herself caught up in a conspiracy that involved established associates attacking rival Nancy Kerrigan as a means of eliminating her as competition for the games. Screenwriter Steven Rogers’ script certainly tells this story, but more importantly rewinds the tape on the life that led up to those events. Anchored by interviews with Tonya (Margot Robbie); her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan); and her mother, LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), I, Tonya explores the titular woman’s white trash upbringing in Portland, Oregon, her legitimate aspirations as a figure skater, and all of the horrible abuses that accompany those tales, and provides a whole new fourth-wall-breaking perspective on what is unquestionably one of the strangest scandals in sports history.
A key part of crafting the unique narrative is carving out a specific tone, and as an audience member, I, Tonya is an emotionally complex experience. Tonya (portrayed as a young girl by McKenna Grace) was left alone with LaVona at a young age, and grew up the subject of constant emotional and physical abuse. That continued into her teens and young adulthood, with Tonya’s introduction to Jeff Gillooly, who kept up the pattern going before, during, and even after their marriage. It properly results in many hard to watch scenes in the film that pair with teeth-gritted jaw clenches, and provides a level of sympathy of Tonya that most probably never had. Simultaneously, however, it has no issue throwing out an off-the-cuff line that gets a hearty laugh — creating quite the razor-thin line for the movie to walk upon. It could have been the film’s downfall, as over-the-top, horrific irreverence has no place here, but it’s ultimately one of its greatest strengths, as the tone does properly match up with the roller coaster of oddness and oddballs that the reality offers. You will find yourself kind of hating yourself for chuckling, but it is part of the experience and conversation.
On that note, the players in this game are all so weirdly extreme that they make tremendous character fodder for the perfectly cast stars — and Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney all make a feast of it. Embracing the hyper-vulgarity and ugliness that comprises LaVona’s personality, Janney is the film’s truly special presence, as she fiercely pops from the moment she first appears on screen sporting a bowl cut and a ventilator, wearing a fur coat and lively feathered friend on her shoulder. It’s an Oscar-worthy showing for sure — but thankfully doesn’t undercut the contributions from the leads, who are also phenomenal in their own right. The glamorous, Australian Robbie utterly disappears as the brash, unapologetic Tonya, truly believing every one of the multiple variations of “It’s not my fault;” while Stan as Jeff creates a weirdly adept balance between “mild-mannered” and “scum bag,” coming across as quiet and innocent one minute, and revealed as a total asshole the next. With awesome material to dig into, the film sets them up for success, but you still awe at how brilliantly they crush it.
Much like how recent pop culture has shined a bright light on the O.J. Simpson case from the mid-1990s, it was only a matter of time before we saw a take on Tonya Harding and the events surrounding the 1994 Winter Olympics. Thankfully, I, Tonya is the proper exploration of the story. It’s a eccentric mix of weird, severe, funny and controversial, but in being so is a proper take on the fractured reality its based upon.