Sneaky Thoughts: I, Tonya

Someone suggested today that I should make a habit of writing little reviews of the films we get at Sneak Preview. So, why not?

Tonight’s film was I, Tonya, a biopic of Tonya Harding, the ice skater who became globally infamous after her rival Nancy Kerrigan was beaten in an attack linked to Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly – and possibly Harding herself.

The film opens with a disclaimer, as most films seem to these days, noting that it is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” with Harding and Gillooly, and it emphasises this point by having recreations of these interviews (restaged by the actors) scattered throughout the film. Sometimes the characters even pause mid-scene to claim something to the audience – usually that whatever is being depicted did or did not happen. There’s a bit of a “please don’t sue us” vibe, as when Tonya’s mother LaVona says she only hit Tonya once, or when Gillooly says he never abused her.

The trouble with taking this approach is… the film shows LaVona and Gillooly repeatedly abusing her. Until someone figures out how to put film in quantum superposition, it will always have to take one side wherever these “wildly contradictory” claims contradict. It’s unavoidable. Still, this kind of lip service feels like a pro-cake-having, pro-cake-eating approach to the gaps in the historical record.

Margot Robbie portrays Harding well as a steely redneck and manages to find a way to portray her personality through this gruff mask without having to resort to moments where this aggressive exterior drops away. Sebastian Stan also does well as her (ex-)husband, a man who seems to be blind to how Tonya feels and resorts to violence at any imagined slight. The actors around her feel like they’re playing stereotypes, but the credits feature clips from the real interviews just to emphasise that the peripheral players in Harding’s life – particularly her sadistic mother and her clueless fantasist bodyguard – really were like that, even down to LaVona’s pet parakeet perching on her shoulder during interviews.

The one odd casting detail perhaps is that although a chunk of the film happens in Harding’s teenage years (beginning at 15), they didn’t have teenage actors fill in. Robbie (27) and Stan (35) pass as teenagers about as well as John Travolta and Oliva Newton-John, and it makes the passage of time difficult to judge – especially in a film that occasionally flashes backwards and forwards. I was sure several years of training had passed at one point, only for Harding to then blame her temper on going through puberty (or was this meant to be a joke?).

[Spoilers for the ending begin here, if giving away the results of a real-life sporting contest in the early 90s counts as spoilers]

One interesting detail is that it doesn’t hit the notes you’d expect it to. The attack on Kerrigan – the whole reason Harding is remembered – is shown in a one-take tracking shot that follows the thug hired to break her knee, and barely shows Kerrigan at all. The film is structured far more around Tonya’s life itself – training, success in 1991, the collapse of her career in 1994 – than in the storyline the news wrote about her.

A final point – the film is marketed as a comedy, and a lot of the scenes are very funny. But a few scenes at the start of the film, detailing how people abused her, are difficult to laugh at. Dark comedy can work well, but it’s strange in a film about real people when the punchline of a scene is Tonya’s mother hitting her with a hairbrush or her step-brother groping her in the bathroom. It’s hard to walk the line of making comedy about real people without mocking them, and while it triumphs overall, one or two times it arguably slips off the tightrope.*

* (I’d make a figure-skating pun, but I don’t know any figure skating terminology)

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