I, Tonya: A trailer-park Rashomon with stellar performances and bitter laughs

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B+

A kind of sourly funny trailer-park Rashomon, I, Tonya is the unlikely awards-season film based on the life of Tonya Harding, the street-tough figure skater who became involved with the attempted knee-capping of rival Nancy Kerrigan.

When Hollywood pays attention to blue collar notoriety, and the key figures aren’t painted as mud-covered saints, there are inevitably accusations of Blue State snobbery. But, taken as it is from the (often conflicting) actual words of Tonya Harding, her abuser ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, and her harridan of a mother, I, Tonya has the ring of absurd truth.

 Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding. 

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding. 

Indeed, the Coen Brothers themselves could not have come up with a more gob-smacking collection of idiot criminals than Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), his mama’s boy “enforcer” Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and their hired guns.

Whether Harding (Margot Robbie) was proactive in their numbskull scheme is left open, despite her denials. Scandals are like that.

What’s more important is that Robbie succeeds, with no small amount of dark humour, in capturing the kind of foul-mouthed, in-your-facedness that propelled a girl from the wrong side of Portland to the top of a sport designed for athletic debutantes. For all its uncomfortable laughs, I, Tonya is a condemnation of sports based on class distinctions. Most athletes battle themselves and their competitors. Tonya Harding battled the entire sport of women’s figure skating. And arguably, she lost, after much drama, becoming a punchline for late-night talk show monologues along the way.

 Allison Janney as the worst mother ever

Allison Janney as the worst mother ever

The laughs are often uncomfortable, the dialogue acerbic. Recounting the many punches she received from her husband, Robbie’s Tonya bitterly tells the camera, “Nancy Kerrigan gets hit once, and the whole world sh—s itself.”

All of it would make for simply a sour re-telling of recent history if not for the two female performances that are already on awards nominee lists. The Australian actress Robbie’s stock keeps rising, from film to film. And here, her glamour is so completely cloaked in working-class crust, it’s almost as if she absorbed the downside of the American Dream, and the minimum-wage earners who dream it.

But the unforgettable performance is given by Allison Janney as LaVona Golden, the skate mom who bullies her under-funded daughter Tonya past the kewpie dolls and trust-fund kids, cigarette in hand, obscenities flying. Mother and daughter are party crashers of the most unstoppable kind, with plenty of spleen and anger left to vent at each other (there’s even a stabbing at one point).

LaVona is close to the worst mom in movie history, maybe worse than even Joan Crawford.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) strike a tone and stick to it. These are larger-than-life characters from the underclass, and their clash with proper society is bound to be mordantly funny.

That the truth about Tonya Harding remains elusive is entirely appropriate. Yesterday’s scandal is history written in innuendo and rumour. And in a point Tonya herself makes speaking directly to the camera, we, the audience that eats up tabloid news, were her ultimate abusers.

I, Tonya. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan. Opens Friday, December 22 in Toronto. Opens nationwide on January 5.