Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser
Review by Stephanie Cooke
If you had given me a list of all the films that I would see in 2017 at the beginning of this year and asked me to pick out the ones that would be my favourites, I would not have guessed that I, Tonya would be on that list.
I, Tonya is the story about the controversial figure skater, Tonya Harding and her life story from when she started skating to the end of her career. It details her family life, relationships, and of course, her skating. All of this in a 2-hour long feature out on December 7.
I was completely impressed with the range of emotions I felt throughout the entire film. Robbie’s performance as she portrayed a woman who was essentially burned at the stake for a very minimal role in what is referred to as “The Incident.” In the film, it’s pointed out that she’s essentially been handed a life sentence when they take away the only thing she has. The men who had a far more prominent role in the actual crime and the complete destruction of Tonya— got two-year sentences and were released within eight months (at least in the case of Jeff). I really and truly felt for Tonya in this movie… I did.
There’s one part in the film where Tonya talks about the abuse she endured throughout her life. This is something that comes up a few times. In one particular instance, she talks about how everyone around her abused her, and that wasn’t limited to the people that she knew. She points out the the whole world attacked her and in that, also became her abusers. In an era where there’s such reactionary responses to everything on social media, Tonya Harding experienced something very similar to what I see happen regularly online.
Robbie emotes so strongly and puts forward the performance of a lifetime within I, Tonya. Every single thing that she felt throughout the movie, I felt in my theatre seat. She is so clearly invested in the role and telling Harding’s story, and she just WORKS so well here.
All of the cast was exceptional in the film. Allison Janney plays Tonya’s toxic (as an understatement) mother and early on is a complete scene stealer. It’s not to say that she isn’t great later in the film too. Her role is significantly less prominent than when Tonya is young and still a minor needing to live at home.
While Sebastian Stan is great in the film as Jeff Gillooly, he’s incredibly hard to watch on screen as he plays Tonya’s abusive husband who eventually sets events in motion that lead to “The Incident.” I’ll use the word toxic here again to describe things as I think it says a lot that Tonya went from one toxic relationship to another. She’s desperately looking for someone to love her and treat her right— something that the film does a great job of also portraying on screen.
However, while Stan is great in the film, I wouldn’t say necessarily that his character was great. I know he’s based on a real person, but there wasn’t a lot of substance given to him to work with. He essentially likes trucks and abusing Tonya. That’s his role in the film. Maybe that’s fine. Did I need to have an abuser given a backstory to make me feel for him in any way? Probably not. He served his purpose, so I guess that’s enough in the context of the film, especially with the focus being on Tonya.
The other standout was Paul Walter Hauser who plays the role of Shawn Eckhardt aka the person who truly blew up and destroyed Tonya’s career. Hauser does a great job of playing a bumbling bozo living with his parents, desperate to play a part in helping Jeff and Tonya’s relationship. At one point in the film, someone says that it’s impressive what got pulled off by a couple of boobs in an entire story about boobs and no one is a bigger idiot in this film than Shawn.
I was a kid when all the Tonya Harding drama happened. I don’t have much of a memory for the story that was on the news, but it seems as though the writers compiled their story based on speaking to the prominent people that this affected as well as the available information from the FBI investigation. The writing is genuinely impressive too in that it made an entire movie around something I couldn’t ordinarily give two craps about (figure skating) and turned it into something I was utterly and completed invested in from start to finish. The story is more about Tonya than figure skating but still.
The writers do a fantastic job of telling a story that’s interesting and isn’t just a straight regurgitation of Tonya’s story. They divulge into Tonya’s life and the lives of those around her to give you a good idea of what shaped her, and it works so well.
I think one of the most surprising things about I, Tonya isn’t that the film was good or that it was an emotional rollercoaster. I think one of the more shocking things to me is that it was funny. It’s a dark humour, for sure, but mixed in with an emotional story is a lot of comedy. It worked and took away some of the heaviness of triggering scenes of abuse.
Speaking on that though, it should be noted that anyone triggered by abuse should perhaps steer clear of the film. While the abuse served to show Tonya’s upbringing and what she was built up to think she deserved, it’s hard to watch at times as the only people she really loved continue to physically and emotionally tear her apart.
My biggest problem with the film is the choices regarding how they chose to portray a 15-year old Tonya. Margot Robbie sticks out like a sore thumb as she figure skates alongside ACTUAL 15-year olds. If they had wanted to go the route of having an older actress also play the role of Tonya as a teen, they should’ve reflected that in the extras around her not to have her stand out like that. Lots of movies and TV shows are guilty of doing things like this (i.e., casting much older people to play teenagers… looking at you, Grease). Robbie was the only one amidst the young skaters that was an adult, and it was obvious.
I think the choice stems from the fact that much of Tonya’s story revolves around her teenage years and they wanted to make the most of Robbie but for me, it was a misstep that took me out of the film for that portion of it.
To end things on a better note though, I, Tonya was fantastic and heart-wrenching. Objectively from the outside going in, I wouldn’t have thought that a film like this would’ve really made me think about feminism and where we are today in the world, but here we are. The film took me to so many emotional places and made me think so hard about how we treat others in the public spotlight and how quick we are to pass our judgment, especially when it seems easy and clear-cut. Nothing is ever really black and white though and Tonya Harding’s story being laid for me like this was raw and wonderfully presented.
Must see! I, Tonya was a complete success that I enjoyed from start to finish. My nitpicks with the film (i.e., Robbie playing a teenage Harding) aren’t enough to dissuade me from singing the praises of the film.
The world, as stated in the movie, made Harding a punchline and her story (if relatively accurate) deserved to be told like this.
Oh, and the film had a fantastic soundtrack. The choices for the music were perfect, and I enjoyed pretty much everything included.