Runstedler’s DVD Pick of the Month: I, Tonya

Craig Gillespie’s mockumentary biopic (and first directed film) I, Tonya tells the story of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), an Olympic figure skater from an abused and unloved background who is the first to successfully complete the triple axel, before being accused of sabotaging the competition and banned from figure skating altogether. Robbie shines as Harding, who is ambitious, direct, and full of life, yet in need of love and a friend. This is probably her best performance to date; she’s such a gorgeous and charming actress, but she really transformed herself almost unrecognisable for the role and really becomes Harding (sort of like when Charlize Theron became Aileen Wuornos in Monster). For what it’s worth, I also think the actress who plays Harding as a little girl was excellent too. Alison Janney (American BeautyFinding Nemo) is also outstanding as Tonya’s narcissistic, horrible, abusive, lunatic mother LaVona Golden, a miserable old hag who uses her daughter as a vessel to fulfil her own inadequate life, and yet cannot recognise her daughter’s immense talent or display any forms of affection or acknowledgement for her. I appreciated the mother’s subversiveness, but hated her callousness and abusiveness, but Janney gives such a strong performance as Golden, and their chemistry was really interesting to see. I also hated her loser, piece of shit, abusive husband (I can’t even remember his name). The film indicts him as the one who arranges his loser friends to take out rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s kneecap (and it basically falls to shit like everything else in their lives).

Gillespie paints a very sympathetic and open-minded portrait of Harding (one that seems aligned with Sufjan Stevens’s recent song about the figure skater too), and what I loved about Tonya was her endurance and the fact that she is a survivor. Despite the hardships, disgrace, domestic abuse, lack of love, and disappointment, she endures, and explores her other talents, which include boxing (!!). I couldn’t help but think of Joyce Carol Oates’s novels and her interest in survivors when I watched this. Whether she was responsible or not, I liked Tonya, and I felt for her. I don’t think she deserved what happened to her, and I wanted to be her friend (I think she really needed one). Her loser husband and terrible mother and absent, passive father didn’t really help things. I think the mockumentary style and great soundtrack really work well (and I especially like the re-enactment scenes where the characters break the fourth wall), and it also helps to shed new light on Tonya’s neglected narrative. Apparently the real Tonya Harding liked this movie; it’s a chance to revisit the past and get some of the facts straight. And I was really impressed with Tonya’s courage and resilience (see photo below, for example) – it’s a great feminist take on this topic and helps to realise what she was going through and where she was coming from. As a straight boy, I admit I love it when Margot Robbie is all dazzling and charming, but I love her take on Tonya Harding. Like Harding, she really soars.

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