Just nominated for three Academy Awards this morning (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Editing) I, Tonya is not made to satisfy anyone hoping to find an ironclad explanation for the events surrounding the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan.
The film opens with the following disclaimer: “Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, and totally true interviews” — a pointed departure from the standard “based on true events.”
I, Tonya never pretends to be without bias. Reenactments of real interviews with Harding, her mother and her ex-husband remind the audience they are watching an often-contradictory story woven together by various versions of the truth.
It was important that the writers and producers of the film chose to portray Harding as more innocent than guilty not only because that’s what she has claimed, but also because an otherwise incensed audience might miss the film’s most crucial message: she was just as much a victim as Kerrigan, regardless of the events leading up to “the incident.”
There’s been some controversy over how the film portrays the violence and abuse that was rampant in Harding’s life. Some feel it’s exploitive and cheap- that it’s depicting something horrific in a way that plays for laughs. I think those critics are missing the point.
The only way that most people would be able to survive that abuse would be to adopt a certain callousness. Why portray that violence in an overly emotive way when its victim never had that luxury? Besides, without the buffer of humor and lack of sentimentality, an audience might easily exhaust themselves emotionally and miss the point- that from a young age Harding had to learn how to be reactive, defensive, and that she could never stop fighting back.
Minimal research will turn up suspicious evidence regarding Harding’s call to ask about Kerrigan’s practice schedule before the attack. Harding’s explanation for obtaining the time and place Kerrigan would be practicing would vary wildly over the years to follow- a more damning fact that the film glosses over.
Instead, the film wants us to focus on how Harding’s judgement and character was clouded by a sense of constant persecution. Her life was made more difficult for the fact that she never fit the standard for femininity demanded by her sport. Margo Robbie is fantastic in her role, but with her long and slender body, it’s hard for her to convincingly portray someone who lacks grace (The movie also needed younger actors to portray teen Harding and Jeff Gillooly. The audience is asked to suspend quite a bit of disbelief in those scenes.)
Robbie does her best to embody Harding’s athletic but at times abrupt, even brutish, movements, but the film gets a lot of help from DP Nicolas Karakatsanis. The scenes on the ice are incredible feats of cinematography and flow from more to less aggressive reflecting Harding’s journey to become a more refined skater.
Even with the effort Harding makes to appear more dancer-like in her final Olympic competition, she’s no match for Kerrigan’s presentation and elegance on the ice. In its efforts to make the audience more sympathetic to Harding the film opts to portray Kerrigan as more of a rich ice princess than is warranted. It would have been more interesting to portray Kerrigan closer to fact- someone who faced many of the same tomboy criticism as Harding, but who chose to learn the skills and presentation needed to conform instead of rebel. In reality Kerrigan came from relatively modest means. However, she did have two parents who seemed to provide both affection and designer costumes- far from Harding’s reality.
The most revealing element to I, Tonya is Harding’s relationship with her mother. When Harding asks her in a coffee shop if she has ever loved her, she’s unable to give her daughter a direct yes. Instead she defends herself by citing the monumental sacrifices she made in order to help her daughter succeed.
It’s horrific to watch a mother deny her daughter love, but impossible not to feel some degree of sympathy for the woman who gave everything she could but was still so incapable of being a good mother. The film is filled with these characters, like Harding, who while they very well may be capable of monstrous acts, somehow still seem to deserve the love that so constantly evaded the problematic protagonist.
Perhaps if the film had stuck to a more fact-based portrayal of its events, it would have denied its audiences these more fundamental truths about the human need for love and the tragedy that so often follows when its denied us.
Rating: R (for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity)
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan
Directed By: Craig Gillespie
Written By: Steven Rogers
Runtime: 119 minutes
Laura Day is a freelance film and television producer, a creative producer for Women Of The Now, and a screening panelist for the Midwest Independent Film Festival.