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Ice ice baby - 'I, Tonya'

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There are relatively few truly shared experiences anymore. The proliferation of the internet has led to a cultural splintering that largely prohibits the grand-scale zeitgeist moments that we all witnessed together.

To anyone possessed of even a modicum of awareness in 1994, the name Tonya Harding was a familiar one. She was at the center of one of the most bizarre incidents in sports history when she was involved (or not involved) in the planning of an assault on Nancy Kerrigan, her fellow figure skater and major rival in the 1994 Olympic Games.

“I, Tonya” means to tell that story. And it does, after a fashion, by embracing the strangeness of the situation. Rather than trying to piece together the truth from a collection of wildly differing accounts, director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers lean into the disparities, bouncing from POV to POV and producing a story that is utterly compelling even as it utterly lacks consistency.

It's the story of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie, “Goodbye Christopher Robin”), a self-proclaimed hick from the Pacific Northwest who managed to claw her way to the apex of the figure skating world, bringing a heretofore unseen athleticism to the sport even as her perceived lack of refinement held her back in the very subjective opinions of the powers that be.

It’s also the story of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, “Logan Lucky”), the man that Harding married while still a teenager. Their tumultuous relationship presented plenty of issues as far as Harding’s efforts to achieve skating greatness. He’s also the one that – along with his blowhard scumbag buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser, TV’s “Kingdom”) – allegedly masterminded the assault.

It’s ALSO the story of LaVona Golden (Allison Janney, TV’s “Mom”), Harding’s mother. It was LaVona’s incessant pushing and insistence on harsh words rather than praise that shaped Tonya growing up. LaVona raised her daughter on a diet of harsh words and occasional blows, causing untold traumas even as Tonya ascended in the skating world.

(We also get the odd insight from Tonya’s first coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nichols, TV’s “Law & Order True Crime”) and tabloid TV producer Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), but the aforementioned trio are the primary players.)

At the center of it all is Tonya’s rise and subsequent fall. Each of our central figures – Tonya, Jeff and LaVona – have their own interpretation of how events played out. All three have their own memories and share them accordingly; there’s plenty of disagreement with regards to exactly what happened and how it happened.

While most people have at least a passing familiarity with the defining incident, Harding’s earlier years haven’t seen nearly as much play. And so we watch as a young girl from a broken home struggles to deal with a domineering mother, significant poverty and a sport that doesn’t take kindly to her type crashing the party. Later, we see an ill-considered and unhealthy marriage thrown into the mix as well.

All of it leading to an occurrence that made Tonya Harding one of the most famous people in the world, an ongoing punchline that still retains a degree of relevance as cultural shorthand even now, nearly 25 years later.

“I, Tonya” is unorthodox in a lot of ways. It’s a biopic, but not really. It’s a sports movie, but not really. It has not one, not two, but three unreliable narrators.

And it’s great.

Gillespie and Rogers have done a wonderful job in the construction of the narrative. The shifts in perspective are deft and smooth, maintaining momentum even as we change points of view. The blending of recreated interview footage and the occasional direct-address fourth-wall break into the relation of the narrative allows for a real sense of depth. It’s worth noting that the ice skating sequences are handled well; Robbie clearly made an effort to get comfortable on the ice, which allowed for much smoother transitions. It’s not like she was a novice out there, though there are moments where it’s clear that a double is performing – not that any of us should have expected triple axels out of Margot Robbie.

The performances really shine throughout. Robbie is outstanding as Harding; she puts forth this vibe that is equal parts defensive and unabashed and fundamentally unapologetic. She manages to garner sympathy AND be off-putting at the same time. It’s an incredibly nuanced portrayal. Janney has been on the receiving end of numerous plaudits for her performance – and well-deserved. She’s amazing in this role, simply disappearing into this complex bundle of anger and distrust and sadness, all of it masked behind an omnipresent cloud of cigarette smoke. Both of them deserve the Oscar nominations they garnered for their work here.

But while they might be the best of the bunch, Robbie and Janney are hardly alone in putting forth good work. Stan is low-key awesome as Gillooly, capturing a dimwitted selfishness tinged with envy that really encapsulates the man. It’s a departure for him, but he nails it. Nichols and Cannavale are both very good as well, although the highlight among the supporting players has to be Hauser, who captures the smug attitude and pathological dishonesty of the idiotic Shawn perfectly.

“I, Tonya” tells a complicated story in a complicated way. We think that if we dig deep enough, we’ll find the reality, but sometimes, digging in makes things even messier. We all have our perspectives, but oftentimes, the truth is somewhere in between.

[5 out of 5]

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