“My whole entire life, I was told I’d never amount to anything,” says disgraced figure-skater Tonya Harding, as she narrates her story in “I, Tonya.” “But,” she says, “after the triple-axel, everything changed.” That’s the highest of only a few high points in this documentary-style film of Harding’s career, from her first skating class as a child to her part in the notorious attack on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, just before the Detroit Nationals.
What part in that attack did Tonya’s then husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) play? Who else was involved? Whom should we believe? For answers — some of them contradictory — see deservedly R-rated “I, Tonya.”
Margot Robbie (she learned to skate for the part) is compelling as Tonya Harding, who never escapes her hard-scrabble, abusive-family origins in Portland, Oregon. “I ain’t never apologized for growing up poor,” she says. “I was a redneck.” Her chain-smoking, hard-drinking and foul-mouthed mother, LaVona — played enthusiastically by Allison Janney — dominates Tonya’s life. “You skated like a graceless bull dyke,” she says, comparing Tonya with her elite ice-princess competitors. Sebastian Stan is Jeff Gillooly, Tonya’s first boyfriend and, later, abusive husband. “He beat the living hell out of me, and I thought it was my fault,” Tonya says. Julianne Nicholson plays Diane Rawlinson, Tonya’s skating coach who fails to refine her talented student.
Others in the cast include Maizie Smith and Mckenna Grace as young Tonya, Paul Walter Hauser as not-in-touch-with-reality Shawn Eckhardt, and Ricky Russert as hitman Shane Stant. Caitlin Carver is Nancy Kerrigan.
“I, Tonya,” as we read on the screen before its opening credits, is “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” Craig Gillespie directs from Steven Rogers’ script and, with editing by Tatiana S. Riegel, cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis, they create an amazing faux-documentary. Robbie, Janney and Stan, as principal characters, speak directly to us in staged interviews, each telling different versions of events, denying responsibility and accusing each other. “You can’t believe anything Jeff says,” says Tonya. They are all unreliable narrators. As Tonya/Robbie says at film’s end: “There’s no such thing as ‘truth.’ Everyone has their own truth.”
Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sex and nudity, “I, Tonya” runs 121 minutes. It’s Tonya’s story and, I’d add, a story about the reality and power of social class differences in America. LaVona gets it right when she says of the figure-skating world, “Tonya doesn’t fit in; she stands out.”
“I, Tonya’s” tough story,
Class struggles and family —
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