More noise than signal

I, Tonya

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

It’s a bit hard to know how much to go into the generalities of I, Tonya – after all, the incident that brought her to infamy still seems relatively well remembered, but I realise that aside from that nonsense, I didn’t know all that much about Tonya Harding’s life. The problem is, as this film is a biopic in much the same vein as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, I’d trust this film as an unvarnished source of truth as far as I could throw something that I can’t lift.

So, the basics – as a youngster, Tonya, played in the main by Margot Robbie, is “encouraged” to get into figure skating by her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), who provides a perfect opportunity to break out the word “harridan”, if not outright criminal child abuse. Allegedly / disputably. This film’s not too keen on taking one position on any fact of the matter, when instead it can be used as a chisel on the fourth wall.

The kid has talent, and a fierce training regime that sees her produce excellent routines at events, but is routinely discriminated against by judges whose decisions are based more on her working class upbringing, home made outfits and brash manner than skills on the ice.

Tonya’s relationship with her mother flares into fights frequently, no more so than when she meets and soon marries Jeff Gilhooly (Sebastian Stan) to escape her house, but this relationship soon grows as abusive as any other. Again, allegedly.

The real crux of the matter comes during training for the 1994 Winter Olympics, when, following a death threat Jeff suspects came from Tonya’s main rival Nancy Kerrigan, he asks his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to retaliate in kind. Unfortunately, Shawn’s a straight-up liability to himself and anyone around him, so of course, he instead hires two of the world’s least competent goons to attack Nancy, badly injuring her knee.

These criminal inverse masterminds are quickly arrested, and the plot soon unravels, with Tonya’s career being the collateral damage of associating with these titans of ineptitude.

Now, I, Tonya hews closer to being a mockumentary than a documentary, and is played more for laughs rather than truth. And, well, it works. It’s a greatly entertaining film, with strong comedy performances from the cast that are also more than talented enough to carry the dramatic moments too, and sensibly it restricts the bulk of its fourth wall breaking moments to the comedy portions. I’m glad that some of these performances were recognised at the Oscars, and Allison Janney’s ghastly but entirely relatable mother is a deserving winner, in the type of film that I’d not normally expect to get near the awards circuit.

And, well, in truth, I don’t think I’ve a lot else to say about I, Tonya other than that it amused me, but left me with a vague sense of this being somewhat exploitative and mocking someone who has not had the easiest life, in the main through no fault of her own. There’s a less generous interpretation of this being a film than mocks the working class for aspiring to something better than the circumstances they find themselves born to, which with a small amount of earbending I could probably get behind, but that wouldn’t change the fact that it’s a funny comedy, so, well, I suppose that’s enough for it to serve it’s prime function. Well worth watching.