Movie Review: I, Tonya

I can vividly recall the drama surrounding Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan during the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. Along with millions of television viewers worldwide, I watched as this sensational scandal unfolded on the ice. I cheered when Nancy earned the silver medal. As for Tonya…I remember her tearful plea for a re-skate after a shoelace snapped and an eighth-place finish.

Back then, it appeared clear-cut: Nancy was the American princess who deserved a gold medal, and Tonya was the rough redneck who didn’t deserve to skate in the Olympics.

But the truth is much more complicated. And there is more than one victim in this story.

In I, Tonya, Australian Director Craig Gillespie explores different truths, told from the perspectives of Tonya (Margot Robbie), her mother LaVona Golden (Allison Jannie), her abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her bodyguard Eckerd (Paul Walter Hauser).

Alternative truths emerge with back-to-back scenes contradicting each other.

Who is telling the truth?

Who is embellishing?

Who is lying?

In spite of all the ambiguity, I found the movie even more addictive than the actual events.

Horrified, I watched as LaVona physically and emotionally abused Tonya throughout her childhood and adolescence. To survive, Tonya develops an abrasiveness that sets her apart from the budding princesses on the rink. Not even a kind and supportive coach could crack through that hardened shell.

Tonya’s skating ability is extraordinary, and she easily wins in local competitions. But when she moves to larger venues, she loses to less talented skaters. She complains to the judges, only to be told: “We also judge on presentation.”

Her relationship with Jeff Gillooly is fraught with tension and escalating abuse. I wondered why she kept going back to him. The truth is revealed in a telling scene with LaVona. Told that she needs to cobble together a “wholesome American family” to be considered a contender for the Olympics, Tonya approaches her mother for help. LaVona proceeds to berate Tonya, leaving the younger woman no other choice but to reconcile with Jeff.

In the lead-up to the “incident” where Nancy Kerrigan is knee-capped, the truth becomes more obscure. It is clear that Tonya considered Nancy her main competition, but the two women were also friends, rooming together during competitive events. While Tonya focuses on her skating, Jeff and Eckerd set in motion the “letter threats” plot that morphs into a poorly executed physical assault on Nancy.

The tragic ending of this fall from grace is inevitable. Still, it is hard to watch as Tonya Harding receives a harsh punishment that derails all her skating dreams.

Allison Jannie has already received Golden Globes, British Academy Film, and Screen Actors Guild awards for her stellar performance as the abusive stage mother. I wouldn’t be surprised if she won an Oscar. Margot Robbie also deserves an Oscar nod in the Best-Actress category.

A must-see film!