I, Tonya is a biopic/mockumentary about figure skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie)—United States champion in 1991 and 1994; first American woman to land a triple axel in competition; stripped of her second title and banned for life from figure skating after she pled guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution in the assault organized by her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly on her rival Nancy Kerrigan. The opening titles say the film is “based on irony free [sic], wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” The first line has Jeff (played by Sebastian Stan) pointing out that the boom mike has accidentally entered the shot.
There seem to be two directions in which a movie with this knowing, winking attitude can go. If we’re lucky, it will be pure camp, in which the grotesque, disgraced female is an audience-identification figure, a pitied monster. If we’re unlucky, it will be a comedy of contempt, inviting us to laugh at lowlife Tonya and her endless excuses. The startling achievement of Craig Gillespie’s film is that although it does display the lacerating empathy of camp, for almost its entire run time it balances perfectly on a double-edged blade: the outside edge of satire and the inside edge of tragedy.
Even to talk about how the movie pulls this off is to risk cheapening it. Harding (I’ll use surnames for the real people and first names for the movie characters) suffered physical, verbal, and emotional abuse from her mother, LaVona Golden. LaVona (played by Alison Janney) drinks at the rink, ashes her cigarette on the ice, and makes tiny Tonya skate until she wets herself and then orders her, “Skate wet!”
LaVona has an outsize personality in cramped circumstances, like a forest fire in a kitchenette. She, unlike Tonya, has enough brass, detachment from reality, and ill will to plead innocent.
Other skaters’ parents don’t reach out to little Tonya. They transparently want to avoid getting involved. We should have some compassion for these parents, since I, Tonya is above all a film about universal failure to rise to the occasion.
Tonya spends half the movie getting abused, first by her mother and then in her tumultuous, mutually violent marriage, where she never does give as good as she gets. But she is a bad victim. A difficult victim. She doesn’t cringe and beg for help. She doesn’t rise above her harrowing circumstances. Instead she stalks loyally, helplessly, angrily back to the people who hurt her the most. She curses and hits back: A scene shot from her ex-husband’s point of view shows Tonya leveling a rifle at him, while Tonya breaks the fourth wall to tell us indignantly, “I never did this!” She gives advice: “I really think you should just . . . kill yourself.” She has teenage truculence and a wide streak of self-pity; it makes her stick her chin out, so you can hit her again.
The violent scenes sometimes collapse into absurdity. That has led some critics to wonder whether I, Tonya trivializes domestic violence. I found those scenes frightening and moving (and the audience with whom I watched the film seemed to agree) but also true to the way horrifying events in real life often include some element of farce, overturned expectations, sudden compassion, or inexplicable human triviality.
There are a couple stumbles (like the self-righteous zoom-in on a character’s “Americans for Reagan” poster), but the one area in which I, Tonya lets its subject get away with too much is the skating. Tonya’s skating is brilliantly filmed. It feels fast and dangerous, exhilarating and out of control. But Margot Robbie is much more elegant in her movements than Harding was. Tonya argues that she’s undermarked for being a redneck, and asks, “Why can’t it just be about the skating?” I don’t doubt subjective scoring meant that Harding was sometimes underscored due to her bad-girl reputation. But even if it’s just about the skating, it’s not just about the jumping. Footage of Harding’s real skating plays over the end credits, and you can see the thrilling speed and power—and the hunchy, childish movements between the jumps. Harding won competitions when she could hit her big jumps. When she couldn’t, there wasn’t enough in the rest of her skating to justify top marks. (I, Tonya also erases Midori Ito—the woman who actually landed the triple axel at the Albertville Olympics—from skating history.)
The attack on Kerrigan is pure Keystone Kriminals. It’s a doomed caper run by, as a sleazoid journalist says, “two of the biggest boobs in a story populated solely by boobs!” It’s the most extreme example of the movie’s strategy of wringing comedy from tragedy by exposing how the real suffering on all sides was caused by utterly ridiculous actions.
I, Tonya manages to provoke anger and humility in the audience while (almost) never lurching into self-righteousness. It lets you be angry on behalf of a character who never reacts to abuse or betrayal the way you wish she would; it lets you see yourself (the title was well chosen) in a woman who bitterly recalls how she became a criminal and a punchline. The moment that sums up the movie’s approach, and the extraordinarily difficult tone it somehow maintains, is Tonya’s line: “Nancy gets hit one time,” as the audience gasps, “and the whole world s—ts! For me, it’s an all-the-time occurrence!”
This is a thing you’re not allowed to say, and it’s also the thing anybody would want to say under the circumstances. It’s a cartoon thing to say, and it got laughs. It’s also unforgettably poignant.
Tonya’s costumes in this film cover much less of Margot Robbie’s bottom than their real-life equivalents covered Harding’s. Which is tacky (and this is a tacky metaphor, fair warning) but fitting for a movie whose plot is about a coverup, and whose strategy is always exposure. With every self-justification and self-promoting lie, with every sweaty denial and steely, unbelievable excuse, the characters of I, Tonya stand revealed as people like us.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.