I, Tonya biopic of skater Tonya Harding is hilarious and hard-hitting

I, TONYA (Craig Gillespie). 119 minutes. Opens December 22. Rating: NNNN

You’d think this Tonya Harding biopic would turn out to be nothing but an extended punch line – ironically, the world-class skater ended up on the women’s boxing circuit – but it’s actually a savvy meditation on class, the bullshit inside the competitive skating world and the dynamics of family abuse.

Based on actual interviews with the skater and the people in her life, creating a faux documentary vibe, it finds just the right tone, combining horror – people behave really badly – and hilarity.

Harding’s (Margot Robbie) monster mother (Allison Janney, who revels in her obscene wisecracks) shoved her onto the ice when she was four and slapped her around – even throwing a knife at her – through her teens. Then Harding meets future husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who’s an even more expert abuser.

Harding became the best skater in her cohort but her costumes were trashy – she sewed them by hand and couldn’t afford anything else – and never fit the skating federation’s idea of their perfect champion. Judges rated Harding accordingly. 

Her detractors called her Trailer Park Tanya. Her rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), on the other hand, was the polished princess the judges loved. Famously, she was assaulted by Harding’s bodyguard while training for the national championships. Though Harding knew nothing about it, she paid the price and was never allowed to skate again. But before the case went to court she did get to compete against Kerrigan at what was the 1994 Olympics’ most-watched event.

Robbie, who does some of her own skating, finds a way to make the foul-mouthed Harding sympathetic, giving nuance to a character that combines ambition and insecurity. But Steven Rogers deserves the credit for creating the very clever script. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, yet comments on a ton of very serious issues – the demands of sport, the perils of celebrity and the impact of violence against women.

At times Harding comments to the audience while she’s getting the shit kicked out of her. And her final speech, when she admits she was an abuse victim but that her worst abusers were the American public, is dynamite.


Oscar buzz

The Academy loves it when actors do more than just read their lines. The fact that Margot Robbie does a lot of her own skating for the performance should give her a good chance for an Oscar nom. Allison Janney has been making hay out of the mother-from-hell role – see also her very funny TV sitcom Mom. This could translate into some love from the Academy, as well. (Both scored Golden Globe nods in the comedy category.) And this pic is so original in concept and execution, it deserves nominations for both script and director. Will the Academy see it as serious enough to merit that kind of attention? Given how voters are getting more attuned to the issue of violence against women, it’s a possibility.

This is part of NOW’s Holiday Movie Preview. See more here.

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