I, Tonya

I, TONYA SPEC: Craig Gillespie. U.S. 121.

I, TONYA SPEC: Craig Gillespie. U.S. 121 min. Sep 9, 11:30 am, Roy Thomson Hall Sep 16, 6 pm, Scotiabank 1. Rating: NNNN

You’d think this Tonya Harding biopic would turn out to be nothing but an extended punchline – ironically the 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, it finds just the right tone, combining horror – people behave really badly – and hilarity.

Spinning off the interviews, it tracks Harding’s (Margot Robbie) life as a skater, beginning with her monster mother (Allison Janney, who revels in her obscene wisecracks) shoving her onto the ice when she was four and slapping her around – even throwing a knife at her – all the way through her teens. Then Harding meets future husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who’s an even more expert assailant.

Harding, born poor, was the best skater in her cohort, the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition. 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 what their champion should look and act like. Judges rated Harding accordingly. 

She was often referred to by her detractors and some members of the press as Trailer Park Tonya. Her rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), on the other hand was the polished princess the judges loved. Then 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 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 Stephen 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, the impact of violence against women, and often breaks the fourth wall.

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.

A very pleasant TIFF surprise.

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