Rob Reviews "I, Tonya"
When talking to the “younger generation,” it is hard to tell the tale of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan’s 1994 ice skating competitions leading up to “the incident” without thinking to oneself, “this sounds totally made up, and I can’t imagine they are thinking anything else”. But trust me, it all happened to the point that on the twentieth anniversary of “the incident,” ESPN aired one of their “30 for 30” documentaries about the events leading up to, during, and even after it happened. Now, Craig Gillespie, the director of “The Finest Hours” and the “Fright Night” remake, has teamed up with Steven Rogers, writer of “Hope Floats” and “P.S., I Love You” to tell this story with “I, Tonya”.
(I know, that sounds odd, but stay with me here. On the surface, this is about to get even stranger. Because why wouldn’t it?)
Margot Robbie plays Tonya Harding (see? I told you) from the age of about fifteen forward (and it continues) in the story of her life, told almost mockumentary style with interviews and reenactments including a young actress taking the world by storm as Harding in elementary school in Makenna Grace. Sebastian Stan joins the fray as Harding’s on again, off again husband, Jeff Gillooly (not making this up either), Allison Janney plays her domineering mother (she can be in anything and I am cool), Julianne Nicholson plays her 1st coach and consistent voice of reason, and rounding out the main cast is Paul Walter Hauser playing Shawn Eckhardt, the “brains” behind the entire plan to get Harding onto the Olympic team over Kerrigan.
So, at this point in the review I would totally understand if you are thinking, “Rob, there is NO way this works. Harley Quinn and Bucky as two of the most notoriously bumbling borderline criminals of the ‘90s? She’s way too pretty, and he’s way too distinguished! BLASPHEMY!!!!!” OK, calm down and roll with me here.
This TOTALLY works.
Going in, even I was a bit skeptical as to what would be the quality of this thing given the principals involved. Even with Robbie as a producer, my thought process was such that this was her attempt at Oscar bait by dampening her model vibe to play someone who lived for her hair crimper, even in an age where that was a bit in the rear view. Honestly, this took a few minutes to lock in for me, but once it does, this film takes off like a rocket. Robbie fully commits to the role and at moments does disappear into it, and coupled with really good visual effects by Jeffery D. Woodrel in the skating scenes makes this presentation engaging, fun, and head-shaking all at the same time, even though I know this story pretty well. Even the costume design by Jennifer Johnson is top notch, mirroring to a “t” the clothes that they all wore in comparison to documentary footage that I have seen.
Stan is also great here as the man who wants to be more than he is, but cannot quite figure out how to be that man, while Hauser absolutely crushes it as his best friend and wannabe tough guy. Janney is ALWAYS great and totally hateable as the overbearing skate mom that is nothing short of mean and having no real redeeming qualities at any point, and there is even a fun turn by Emmy-winner and Coconut Creek High School alumnus Bobby Cannavale as one of the tabloid TV reporters that covers the aftermath.
There is SO much about this story that is stranger than fiction that it could be really easily be told in that larger-than-life style that takes its audience out of the story, but “I, Tonya” treats it with just enough goofiness to embrace what it is while keeping it respectful enough to tell the story to those unfamiliar. I cannot say that this can exist on its own to tell the story, but when viewing this alongside the “30 for 30” episode “The Price of Gold,” they work well off of each other to give as much of the narrative as possible. I am not sure whether or not this will get the attention of any award voters in a year where the competition is stiffer than I have seen in a while, but that does not mean that this film doesn’t deserve a closer look by said entities. This is a film that is SO much better than it has any reason to be, and whether you know this story inside and out or are just curious to see how it all unfolded, check it out when it hits any form of screen near you!