‘I, Tonya’ review: More than just skating

Why can’t it just be about skating?

If it were all just about skating, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya would have ended halfway, when Tonya Harding, played passionately by Margot Robbie, performed the extremely difficult triple axel in the 1991 Nationals, making the uncouth oddball from middle America the first American to successfully do the stunt. It would have been an inspiring sports film, something in the vein of Tony Gilroy’s The Cutting Edge (1992) or Jon Turteltaub’s Cool Runnings (1993) where miraculous victories happen in the most unlikely places. Tonya’s triumphant smile would have been the perfect ending to that film that is just about skating.

Peculiar celebrity

Tonya Harding’s story however is no longer just about skating.

There is more to Tonya than being an uncouth underdog in the world of figure skating populated by snooty poodle types. She isn’t just poor. She's also the daughter of a domineering woman (Allison Janney) whose every penny spent on Tonya’s skating lessons is borne not out of maternal love but of shrewd investment. Tonya is the wife of a confused loser (Sebastian Stan), a man who finds himself emasculated by his partner’s lofty ambitions. She is also the subject of polarized fanfare, one that quickly shifts from adoration to hatred.

BEGINNING. Tonya (Margot Robbie) meets her husband (Sebastian Stan) as she rises to become a figure skater

BEGINNING.

Tonya (Margot Robbie) meets her husband (Sebastian Stan) as she rises to become a figure skater

The events surrounding Tonya’s peculiar celebrity are laced with controversy, and Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers mine the controversy for something more profound than just inspiration. They shape her as a victim, framing most of the film from her narrated events, each scene pervaded by her issues and thoughts. So when her rival Nancy Kerrigan fails to win the top prize during the Olympics, the audience sees it not as a moment of loss for the skater but as a moment for her to exude some deplorable sense of entitlement, simply because Tonya, who we see alone without a place in the competition, loudly dissects the televised awarding.

The entire film is a collection of versions of a scandalous story that has been so famously repeated, and it certainly feels that this overt subjectivity is what makes it truly compelling. I, Tonya, in a way, attempts to carve a voice for someone who has been rendered voiceless by the infamy caused by a public swayed by sensationalism. 

Totally true interviews

What is even more interesting about I, Tonya is that it doesn’t stop at Tonya.

The film, which in the beginning discloses that it is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews,” jumps from one subject to another, turning it into a pastiche of probably true, maybe embellished, but always entertaining accounts of events. Every now and then, characters would break the 4th wall if only to cheekily remind the viewer of the scene’s fallibility and bias.

CONTROVERSY. Tonya gets mobbed by reporters during the scandal between her and Nancy Kerrigan

CONTROVERSY.

Tonya gets mobbed by reporters during the scandal between her and Nancy Kerrigan

The film doesn’t want its audience to treat it as an objective account of the disgraced figure skater’s life.

It prompts the viewer to question everything, including what he already knows about Tonya based on what popular media has given him. By muddling the dominant narrative, I, Tonya succeeds in making something out of alternative facts, turning a heroine out of somebody who has long been regarded as the consummate sports villain, and molding an affecting tragedy out of what has been considered as a cautionary tale of sour rivalry.

Truth is truly malleable.

Fun, irreverent, and confrontational

Why can’t it just be about skating?

DOMINEERING FIGURE. Allison Jenney plays Tonya's mother

DOMINEERING FIGURE.

Allison Jenney plays Tonya's mother

Because it’s not. I, Tonya is fun, irreverent, and deliciously confrontational. By embracing its ability to fictionalize the facts, the film turns its viewers into Tonya Harding’s judges.  –Rappler.com

 

Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas' Tirad Pass. Since then, he's been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.