Oscar season starts early this year with I, Tonya an unlikely prestige film about an unlikely Olympian starring Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, directed by Craig Gillespie. Strangely enough, he also helmed that dreadful Fright Night reboot starring David Tennant. The black comedy is constructed more like a mockumentary, in the style of The Big Short. On camera interviews with actors in character are supplemented by reenactments with those same actors often breaking the fourth wall. The film was the opening night feature at the 26th Philadelphia Film Festival, and will be opening in theaters on December 8th just in time for awards season.
Based on actual interviews, the film opens with Tonya Harding already a skating prodigy at four years old, winning over the coach that would eventually take her to Lillehammer to square off against Kerrigan. From there the film’s narrative is a pretty straight shot as we see Robbie hilariously start off playing a teenage Harding complete with big 80’s hair and braces as she goes from the skating wunderkind to the first woman to land a triple axel in competition. The film ends appropriately enough with an attack on Nancy Kerrigan before competing at the 1994 Olympics. But like all great films, it’s the journey to the destination here that will surprise most.
Margot pulls off a genuinely human character study of the woman who was born into poverty and rose to stardom thanks to her gift, only to be taken down by those who claimed to “love” her. Pushed by an abusive mother, which led to an abusive marriage I, Tonya is a complex portrait of the cycle of abuse and the toll it takes on a person. Interspersed with these more dramatic moments we have short comedic bursts as we witness the shadow of Tonya’s downfall at the hands her bungling husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) slowly creep in. But its Tonya’s relationship with her mother Latona Harding (Allison Janney) that is the broken heart of the film. After realizing her daughter would perform better when she was upset or angry, she sacrificed Tonya’s love and trust to push her daughter as far as she could to succeed.
I, Tonya is both heartbreaking and hilarious thanks to the immaculate trio of Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney who bring this awkwardly hilarious story to life. I think what works best in I, Tonya is due to the utter absurdity of the situations, how the film balances the more salacious and comedic elements with a very humanistic story. It definitely surprised me with how far Robbie dug down for this character to deliver a performance that will most definitely earn her an Oscar nod come January. I, Tonya was probably the biggest surprise of the year for me for both its captivating story and performances and it’s a film that will definitely convert many more before the year is through.