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February 1, 2018

I, Tonya: A Crazy True Story, Told in an Perfectly Unconventional Way

by Jack Spinella

I, Tonya tells the life story of Tonya Harding, player by Margot Robbie, Olympic figure skater and first female American in history to land a triple axel. The film gives plenty of background to Harding’s early life, having to live with an overbearing and abusive mother, Lavona Harding, played by Allison Janney.

Later on in her life Harding marries Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan, who turns out to be even more abusive to Harding than her mother. Unlike most professional figure skaters, Tonya’s family is incredibly poor and comes from a dysfunctional family. She lacks the squeaky clean image of her peers and this takes a toll on her skating scores, making it seem impossible for someone like her to move up in the world of competitive figure skating and the film explores this struggle thoroughly. However, what the film is all building up to is the attack on fellow Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, and how Harding, Gillooly, and her bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, played by Paul Walter Hauser, were involved. After this event takes place, the focus of the film changes from Harding’s skating career, to what is going to happen to our three guilty leads.

I’ve seen several biopics over the years and none of them have a similar style to I, Tonya. Most biopics either have no interviews at all like Battle of the Sexes last year, or have interviews from those involved and surrounding the events of the story like Bernie in 2012. I, Tonya however, takes a different approach. Instead of just cut and pasting the real interviews of Harding, Gillooly, Eckhardt and Lavona Harding, the film recreates them with our four main actors. This change might not seem like a lot, but it goes along way into bringing you into the bizarre world that is Harding’s life. The film also has plenty of fourth wall breaking, with the actors speaking directly to the camera to explain what was going on in their mind at the time or provide some comedic relief, another element you rarely see in biopics. While one of the major events of I, Tonya is an attack on a person, the film has a sharp comedic edge that still doesn’t take away from the seriousness of Kerrigan’s attack or the abuse of Harding. I, Tonya is able to ride that fine line that of comedy and drama that Three Billboards rode, every emotion the film applies to lands, the tone never feels inconsistent. The editing is also surprising effective, the films flows from scene to scene naturally and the pace rarely dragged. Anytime the film starting to slow down, a new layer or element to the story was revealed that was hard to see coming. I, Tonya might be based on a famous true story, but only the main beats are common knowledge, the film goes into much greater detail about almost every aspect of Harding’s life so the twists and turns feel genuine. You not only learn more about the specifics around the Kerrigan attack, but the film focuses even more on Harding’s relationship with her mother, husband and the world of competitive figure skating which clearly favors the rich. Directing, editing, and writing are all on point, but the cast is what really elevates this movie to something fantastic.

The whole cast really did pull their weight, but the two standouts for me were Allison Janney, and Paul Walter Hauser. Janney’s performance is the most well-rounded and powerful in of anyone in the film. She is able to sell every comedic and dramatic scene perfectly, and her interactions with Margot Robbie are some of her best scenes. Hauser has a relatively small amount of screen time, but steals every scene he is in. This is partly due to his great performance and partly due to him getting some of the best material to work with by far. He doesn’t carry any dramatic scenes whatsoever, but his comedic moments were some of the best in the film and he is the character you’ll probably end up remembering weeks after leaving the theater.

One of the most surprisingly enjoyable aspects of I, Tonya is the soundtrack, which will be loved by anyway who likes the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Almost every scene has a great, fitting song to go with it and the music choices help keep the pace from slowing down. Unfortunately, the most important scene in the film, the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, the reason that this film is being made in the first place, has some of the most generic, instrumental music in the entire film. When so many other less important scenes have some great songs to back them up, it’s disappointing to see such a forgettable track used for the film’s pivotal moment. Other than this oversight I would say the soundtrack is pretty much perfect and fits the tone of the film nicely.

I, Tonya checks all the boxes for what I look for in a biopic like this, even going above and beyond in acting, directing and score. Unlike most biopics, the story is still interesting as the film makes the smart choice of focusing on elements that are not common knowledge, instead providing information that slipped through the cracks as everyone moved on to the next big story. While, I, Tonya unfortunately failed to snag a best picture nominations at the Academy Awards, I could easily see Allison Janney picking up best supporting actress, like she did at the Golden Globes a few weeks ago. I would actually recommend this film most to those who want to see a great film, but are usually bored by the typical Oscar fare like Darkest Hour, The Post and Phantom Thread. While most best picture nominations come off as artsy and dry, I, Tonya is an awarding winning film that is certainly more of a crowd pleaser.

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