The Tonya Harding biopic/mockumentary came into the Toronto International Film Festival as an “also showing” flick. Yet after the first screening, it became one of the most buzzed about films and now was just nominated for five Critics Choice Awards. It was also one of the highest profile acquisitions during TIFF, and will be micro-distributor Neon’s biggest test if they can roll with the big leagues. The humor in “I, Tonya” is surprising and unexpected, playing up so many laughs in a story that everyone thought they knew. Are all the details in this version true? Probably not, but the characters on screen say as much. Its tongue in cheek, wink-wink, all the way through and Aussie director Craig Gillespie’s outsider look into a very American crime story, is wildly entertaining. Margot Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Suicide Squad”) has quickly gone from hot newcomer, to a serious best actress threat in short amount of time.
“Getting knocked around was just a way of life for me,” Tonya Harding (Robbie) said in an interview. “But Nancy Kerrigan gets hit one time and the world loses their s***.” From the age of 4, Tonya wanted to be a figure skater. Her foul mouth, monster of a mother, LaVona (Allison Janney) spent her entire paycheck as a waitress on skating lessons. Tonya dropped out of high school and devoted every day to mastering moves like the triple axel, which she became the first skater to master. Her landing and skating, often superior to rivals, yet consistently receiving lower scores. “You’re just not the person we want representing the United States,” one of the judges finally admits. Then “the incident” happens, and Tonya’s career is over as she becomes a '90s tabloid American sensation.
Outside of the colorful (and I mean colorful) performances in “I, Tonya,” the creative and abstract presentation is the real treat. It’s been compared to a Christopher Guest film, but it’s more emotionally tuned up than his work. It takes one of the most hated public figures in American media and dares the audience to think about her from a shocking perspective, the victim. Whether or not half the information used in the screenplay is true becomes irrelevant. “I, Tonya” takes the addictive nature of reality television and applies that to feature film, and you can’t turn away. That’s where the brilliance of Robbie and Allison Janney (“Girl on the Train”) comes in, fulfilling our trashiest performance needs.
When it was first announced that Australian actress Robbie would portray the disgraced Olympic figure skater, there was obvious casting concern. Can you make someone so beautiful look like “trashy Tonya.” The answer might come in the form of a hair and makeup nomination (one of Critics Choice Award nominations), as Robbie becomes an uncanny doppelganger. While Robbie has steadily climb the mainstream ladder with superhero roles or stereotypical babe parts, she’s never been taken seriously as an actress (that cameo in “The Big Sick” proves my point). That all changes with “I, Tonya,” which just might be enough to land her on the growing list of best actress contenders. Not to be overlooked is Janney’s deplorable mother figure. The rest of the supporting casts are also impressive as they turn this guilty pleasure topic into something multidimensional and might change your perspective on what you think you know.
Final thought — A sarcastic take on the infamous female skating scandal proves to be a winning combination of performance and entertainment.