On thin ice: The entertaining ‘I, Tonya’ lands at Amherst Cinema today

Guest contributor to the Bulletin
Friday, January 05, 2018

“I, Tonya” lands in movie theaters like a champion at this moment of national gender-inspired high drama. What uncannily good timing.

As fresh and riveting as the controversial ’90s figure skater herself, the high-energy biopic, directed by Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”), details Tonya Harding’s rise to the near-top of the international figure-skating world, paying attention to the particular kind of sexism, tightly laced with classism, that proved her downfall.

Knocked around by her mother (a dry Allison Janney) and husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the rough-around-the-edges, working-class Tonya, played by Margot Robbie, was seen by skating judges, sportscasters and TV audiences as an excitingly athletic skater, if perhaps too coarse to be an ice princess. 

Before the world could weigh in on that question, though, our attention turned to the criminal assault on Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding’s arch-rival for an Olympics medal.

The level of Tonya’s involvement in that infamous incident remains another open question. “I, Tonya” gives her the benefit of the doubt.

The endearingly scrappy Tonya was beloved by many, for besides being a sensational skater, she wore her battle-scarred heart on her sleeve. So does Robbie, who captures Tonya’s desperate-to-please expression at the end of her performances and is said to have done much of the skating herself.

But Robbie is conventionally feminine, which creates some dissonance, considering that Tonya’s lack of polish was at the heart of the emotional response she inspired, both positive and negative. A 1994 Time magazine story following the assault characterized Tonya as “the bead of raw sweat in a field of dainty perspirers” and a “scrappy girl from the trailer parks.”  

Nancy, for her part, though she had legions of fans, may not have has been as sympathetic a figure as one might expect. A Newsweek magazine cover featured a close-up of her face with her plaintively uttered quote, “Why me?” and the Time magazine article suggested that she had lived a sheltered life in Massachusetts.

That Matt Lauer, now accused of sexual aggression toward women, is among the clips of newscasters commenting on the skaters back then adds a little irony.

Another source of dissonance in “I, Tonya” is tonal. Disturbing scenes of domestic violence are juxtaposed with and undercut by the portrayal of Tonya’s husband and cohorts as clownish. Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who claims to be Tonya’s bodyguard and an international espionage expert, is especially one-dimensional and buffoonish. 

“I, Tonya” is broadly drawn throughout and could be said to have a masculine style. The frenetic pace and voice-overs call to mind Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” and the film has a hits-heavy soundtrack, which leans on obvious choices.

Tonya Harding’s story has all the makings of heartbreaking drama, but the movie doesn’t land with the emotional resonance of, say, “The Florida Project,” which portrays an underclass with more nuance and seeming authenticity.

Still, “I, Tonya” raises uncomfortable questions that linger after the last laugh, and, like Tonya, it is over-the-top entertaining.

Directed by Craig Gillespie and starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan, “I, Tonya” is Rated R and will be playing at Amherst Cinema this today, running through Jan 11. For more information, visit amherstcinema.org/films-and-events/i-tonya.