I, Tonya

I, Tonya ★★★★½

Director Craig Gillespie has a habit of turning a bad pitch into a good movie. Lars and the Real Girl, a story about a man who falls in love with a life-size doll, sounds awful on paper. So does a remake of Fright Night. And so does a movie about the infamous Tonya Harding.

Even though I'm an Oregonian (Sco Ducks!), I didn't know much about the Tonya Harding case going into the movie. My only information was from my mom, who said that Tonya was a figure skater who personally busted a woman's knees herself, and that she hopes that Tonya will get no money from this "disgusting" movie. Obviously, that's not the truth. But at the same time, how can we ever really know the real truth?

I, Tonya masterfully plays around with this idea of the unreliable narrator. Characters will break the fourth wall in the middle of a scene to tell the audience their own subjective sides of the story that drastically contradict everyone else's. This format means we can't really believe anything that anyone is saying -- a daring choice for a biopic. This manages to work because Tonya has never gotten a real chance to have her own story told, a story which is rooted in pathos and sympathy. Sure, it's a dramatically exaggerated and biased retelling, but it is framed as hers nonetheless. The media circus completely controlled her narrative in the mid-1990s, so why can't she do the same now?

According to Tonya, she grew up poor and with an abusive mother (Allison Janney). Later, she gets into a toxic relationship with the allegedly abusive Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Despite all this, she tries to pursue her own version of the so-called American dream by buckling down and pulling herself up by her skate laces. She sewed her own sparkly costumes and trained every day for hours, and she still wasn't deemed good enough by the elitist judges. So she decided to become the first U.S. woman ever to pull off one of the hardest figure skating moves: a triple axel.

The first half leading up to this triple axel is the strongest part of the film, even if it's not what the audience is really there for. Ironically enough, the film actually starts to lose steam in the second hour as it delves into what the characters refer to as "the incident." The issue is that Gillooly and Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) are simply not compelling characters, but they are the ones who actually hired the two (wildly incompetent) hit men to do the knee-bashing. Focusing on them for so long rather than Tonya or her mother, played with excellent acidity by Janney, detracts from the darkly playful and fast-paced style the film had spent an hour setting up. At the same time, this tonal shift helps to effectively pull off a devastating courtroom scene near the end, in which Margot Robbie gives her best performance since her breakthrough role in The Wolf of Wall Street.

We go see I, Tonya for "the incident," when we should be going to feel that palpable bliss emanating from Tonya as she successfully performs that history-making triple axel.

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