Movie Review: I, Tonya


I, Tonya * 2017 * Rated R * 2 hours

😸😸😸😸½ Rated 4.5 Happy lap cats

I, Tonya is the tragicomic, mostly, sorta true story of the rise and fall of an American woman and Olympic figure skater who has it all, then loses it, due to circumstances both within and beyond her control. It tells a timeless story of love, loss, ambition, rivalry, greed, classism, misogyny and sheer stupidity. Though the stupidity is mostly on the part of the skater’s male associates, most of the negative consequences for that stupidity fall onto her. That’s the timeless part of the story, as blaming the woman for everyone else’s mistakes is a cultural tradition that goes all the way back to the bible.

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was four years old when her mother, LaVona (Alison Janney) hired her first skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), and began pressuring her to excel at the sport. Her mother verbally and physically abused her throughout her childhood and forced her to focus on figure skating as the most important aspect of her life, more important, even, than her education. Tonya spent most of her time training, despite how difficult the family’s poverty made it for them to continue to afford her skating career.

By the time Tonya was an adolescent, she was a national figure skating competitor, and her mother made her drop out of high school to spend all of her time training for competitions. At the same time, Lavona never let Tonya forget how much money she poured into supporting Tonya’s skating career. LaVona was also still violently abusing Tonya, even throwing a knife at her during one argument.

It’s no wonder that Tonya became deeply involved with the first boy who showed an interest in her, even though Jeff Gilooly turned out to be as abusive as her mother. That felt like a normal part of love to Tonya. She was 15 when they met, and 19 when they married. As she states in the film, marriage would give her forms of financial stability that she wouldn’t otherwise have access to as a technically unemployed adult, like health and dental insurance (welcome to America). She was estranged from her mother by then, so Jeff became her family.

Tonya Harding suffered from a cycle of misogyny, poverty, classism, and abuse that is an all too common story in this country. She and Jeff continued to struggle financially, while Tonya continued to train and improve as a skater. Jeff became more abusive as time went on.

The skating world became more hostile toward Tonya the more successful she became. It’s one thing to have a trashy, tomboyish skater on the periphery of the skating circuit. It’s another thing altogether to have her develop the potential to become America’s Sweetheart the national champion.

Anyone who doubts the misogyny in the sport should take a good look at the froufrou little skirts they wear and the importance of the subjective “artistry” score, which allows the judges to play favorites based on attributes other than skating ability, such as “traditional” femininity, and who designed their outfit. Female ice skaters are held to a certain standard of looks and behavior, just as female gymnasts and actresses are, and Tonya Harding ran straight into that.

Like most victims of abuse, she had already learned that she couldn’t trust authority figures, since abusers tend to very good at appearing to be normal, even charming, to people in public, and convincing the authorities that it’s the person who’s complaining that’s crazy. Plus there’s the abuse that people pretend not to see so that they don’t have to get involved, which leaves even children bitter and cynical about the adults people say will help them.

With all of the anger that Tonya had simmering inside, and the need to be herself rather than what her abusers and oppressors told her to be, it’s no wonder that she wasn’t interested in twisting herself into some acceptable model of dainty femininity. But at a certain point, her athletic skills were so amazing that they couldn’t be denied any more. She was the first American woman to successfully complete a triple axel jump in competition, earning her the respect and admiration she’d always craved.

But she didn’t know how to handle success. Nothing had prepared her for the scrutiny of the press and public, and the increased pressure from herself and others to do well at the Olympics. She had no support system of successful family and friends to advise her or hold her hand. Like so many famous, successful people before her, she began to self-sabotage. She came in fourth at the Olympics, just shy of a medal. Nancy Kerrigan, her friend and rival, took the bronze and the prize of America’s Sweetheart. Tonya took a job as a waitress in a diner, her Olympic dreams over.

When the Olympics schedule changed so that the next Winter Olympics was only 2 years away, instead of 4, Tonya’s former coach approached her to suggest that she get back in shape and compete again. Tonya agreed, and returned to her intense practice schedule.

Throughout Tonya’s time training for both Olympics, she and Jeff were on again-off again, engaging in violent arguments, breaking up, then getting back together. At some point during her training for the ’94 Olympics, Jeff and his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) decided to help Tonya by hindering Nancy Kerrigan. Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by Shawn Stant and her knee was badly injured.

Shawn Eckhardt was deeply involved with the plan and hired Stant. Everything else, including who knew what, and when they knew it, is a matter of finger-pointing, lies, and cover ups. It’s doubtful that even the people involved remember the complete truth anymore.

I, Tonya covers this entire story in a mockumentary style fitting its setting in the early 1990s, when trashy tabloid news shows were at their height and reality TV was getting its start. Handheld cameras follow closely behind the actors, they’re interviewed in their homes, and we see recreated footage from news coverage of the time.

Sometimes, during an otherwise normal scripted movie scene, the characters break the fourth wall to talk directly to the camera, because they know that there’s nothing normal about their lives anymore. News reporters were camped out on their lawns 24/7. Someone was, in fact, always at least trying to listen. The public was hungry for any detail the press could give them, so anything that the movie has talked about so far could have been spun up into a salacious story somehow.

As a matter of fact, it’s not covered in the film, but in September, 1994, Jeff Gilooly went so far as to exploit his ex-wife’s fame and new notoriety by selling a sex tape of the two of them to Penthouse and a tabloid TV show. Meanwhile, Eckhardt and Gilooly destroyed the career that Tonya had spent two decades building. There were certainly things she could have done differently, but there were also things everyone around her could have done differently, too.

Saying that she didn’t take responsibility for her life is ridiculous. When you raise a child within the cycle of misogyny, abuse and poverty, it’s very difficult to develop the emotional and social skills necessary to escape that cycle, and it’s easy to criticize from the outside. It takes most people until they are much older than their early twenties, and/or years of therapy. The fact that she was able to break into the world of ice skating and keep up the work necessary to succeed at the highest levels is a major achievement for anyone. Doing so while being told that you’re worthless trash and being slapped around is a miracle.

That doesn’t excuse her for not going to the police with the information that she had about the attack, but it does mean she’s allowed to be human. Most people will never see her as a sympathetic character because she still refuses to act contrite and she still isn’t “dainty”, “feminine” or “classy” enough to be forgiven for her crimes. Americans don’t like to forgive a brassy, hard-edged woman unless she has a self-deprecating sense of humor that shows she’s actually self-loathing, thus proving she has a “heart of gold”.

In other words, I, Tonya is the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri pretends to be.  [Spoilers for Three Billboards] Where Three Billboards has an angry mother tell her daughter that she hopes the daughter gets raped, then spends the rest of the film pretending that didn’t happen, I, Tonya addresses its complicated mother-daughter relationship head on. While Three Billboards pretends that the angry mother who’s destroying people’s lives with her anger is somehow feminist, I, Tonya examines the societal and familial conditions that lead to LaVona and Tonya turning out the way they are. It shows us what LaVona’s motivations are, for better or worse, and doesn’t excuse her terrible impulses as feminist. It shows us how and why Tonya ends up going from an abusive parent to an abusive husband, and why she feels powerless in her personal life, and often in her professional life.

Where Three Billboards redeems and idealizes its misogynist, racist, good old boy small town sheriff and deputy and the violence they represent, I Tonya examines and exposes the culture of promoting male dominance and violence in the name of protection. I, Tonya shows why we need to reject the culture that glorifies violence, misogyny, classism, so that we don’t continue to irreparably damage our children and young adults. Three Billboards hardly seems to actually care that a child has died, and blatantly promotes violence as the answer, or at least states that Americans see violence as the answer. It says that we’ll be fickle enough to forget about any other battles, or even justice, as long as we can hurt a stranger.

There is some truth to this statement, for certain parts of America, but it’s not true of average Americans, as Three Billboards implies. Most of us are repulsed by the people who choose violence as the way to solve their problems. I, Tonya doesn’t try to get us to sympathize with the characters at the expense of showing us who they really were, or smoothing over what kind of damage they did to each other.

Margot Robbie and Alison Janney are as compelling in their roles as their Oscar nominations would suggest. Janney plays LaVona with bite and authority, as a woman who never questions herself. Robbie plays Tonya as a woman who wants to do well, wants to make others happy, and desperately wants to be loved, but won’t pretend to be something she’s not to get those things. She’s intense, a little bitter, and scattered as she moves through her life searching for a source of love and approval.

The other two prominent actors, Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser, are also outstanding. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Hauser isn’t Eckhardt. He nailed Eckhardt’s slow, slack-jawed delivery, and seems completely convinced of every grandiose lie he tells, no matter how big the whopper is. He’s totally convinced that he’s a master operative with everything under control, and rewrites what that means as events unfold.

But Stan is the one who was robbed of the Best Supporting Actor nomination. He plays Jeff from age 18, when he’s newly in love with Tonya, to his mid-20s, when he’s scheming and violent, to current day interviews, when he’s mild-mannered and tries to seem like a completely different person, one who’s realized how much harm he’s done. It’s a riveting arc, because you’re never sure which Jeff you’re going to get, which is part of the problem when dealing with violent abusers. He and Robbie went all in during the scenes where they fight, and you truly can’t guess which way things are going to go at any given moment.

Everyone who wants their children to succeed in life should show I, Tonya to their kids as a cautionary tale when the kids turn 18 and are ready to set out in the world. Remember, children, choose your friends and your schemes wisely, then know when to keep your mouth shut and when to tell all. Don’t let yourself get Giloolied. And for heaven’s sake, don’t be the woman who’s left holding the bag.

The dramatic tension never leaves these characters, and we’re left with it at the end of the film, even though the story comes to a satisfying conclusion. It’s not an ambiguous ending, but the rivals will always be rivals, and the dysfunctional family and lovers will always be dysfunctional. Some problems can’t be solved. Instead, the characters find ways to move on with their lives, and the younger ones have found happiness in their separate, new, stories.

Maybe I, Tonya, directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and written by Steven Rogers, isn’t a cautionary tale after all. Maybe it’s the story of a woman who overcame the odds to become a world-class athlete, made mistakes, lost it all, then rebuilt her life into something satisfying and healthy. It’s the story of a survivor.


Photo Credit: NEON