I, TONYA (2017) is a biographical film about the rise and fall of American figure skater Tonya Harding (brilliantly played by Margot Robbie), who was connected to the savage attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Winter Olympics. With a script based on real events given depth and context by secure interviews with Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, the story is funny but painfully tragic, and made me rethink the “pure ice princess savaged by bitter low-class rival” media framing.
The film begins with Harding growing up in Portland in the 1970s, raised by a mother who pushes her into figure skating. As Harding gets older, her mother takes her out of school so she can train full time under a personal coach. Her mom (Allison Janney, who chews every scene in the role) pushes her hard and is rough on her, but it goes way beyond tough love into outright abuse.
Harding marries Jeff Gillooly to get away from her, but he too turns out abusive, frequently hitting her. Harding keeps at her skating, but the judges won’t give her decent scores in competitions because she projects a white trash image, with her home-made costumes and heavy metal music selections. This brings up one of the most interesting themes of the movie, which is that Harding, though a success self-made through a lifetime of dedication and hard work, nonetheless constantly faced an uphill battle in the figure skating world due to its ingrained snobbery. “It should be about the skating,” Harding complains at one point, and she’s totally right. Harding was no doubt one of the best skaters in the world, the first woman to do the very difficult triple-axle.
When Harding gets a crack at the 1994 Winter Olympics, Jeff and his loser friend Shawn hatch a plot to psychologically mess with Nancy Kerrigan. The plan goes awry, leading to a physical attack on Kerrigan with very tragic consequences.
The film comes across a little inconsistent, as it’s based on reminisces by two people with very different recollections of the events as they happened. Both of their stories are considered truthful and blended in the script. Overall, it’s a very engaging movie for its humor (the kind of ridiculous humor that can only be found in real life), great acting performances particularly by Robbie and Janney, riveting skating scenes, and hearing the “villain’s” side of the story. But it’s painful to watch as well, this being a tragedy of a woman’s difficult life ruined through bad associations, all leading up to an ending we already know well.