Whoever knew that the world of figure skating was so hardcore? Good thing Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is here to show us just that. I, Tonya is one of the last Oscar-related films that I needed to see and review (still have Phantom Thread on the agenda to see). I, Tonya is nominated for three Oscars (including two for acting, best actress, and best-supporting actress) and that is easy to understand why. I, Tonya is a film that is heavy with style, fun to watch and well-acted. I, Tonya though lacks the emotional punch that it seems to be reaching for and at times feels little more than just a riff of Martin Scorsese style films (but then again there are worse things to be riffing).
I, Tonya tells the story of the controversial US Olympic woman’s figure skater, Tonya Harding. This is all about her rise from a child obsessed with skating to teenager protégé to an Olympic athlete. This tells of her relationships and the road that led her to be involved in perhaps one of the biggest controversies in sports history.
I, Tonya is a movie with an attitude. Director Craig Gillespie presents the fast-paced and hard edge material without ever making moral judgments on any of characters’ outside of how each individual characters feel about one another. The characters tell the story not Gillespie. Don’t like what Tonya has to say? She doesn’t care and the movie doesn’t care. This is told in a 4th wall breaking style of storytelling where each character tells their side of the story to the camera. It’s a technique we’ve seen before but it is never the less well done. Craig’s distance and judgment-free storytelling allow us to partake in their journey even when the characters’ actions are something we wouldn’t normally condone.
But Gillespie’s distance on the character’s moral quandaries also robs us of the emotional turmoil that many of the characters are going through. It wasn’t until the very end did Gillespie manage to zero in on what Tonya was experiencing and give her the moment her character deserved. I was having fun during the movie and enjoying much of the comedy with its fast-paced editing but I found it hard to get emotionally invested in the story. Some might try to argue this makes the film avoid being didactic but I think it makes the movie more passive and distant. A story like I, Tonya needs a healthy balance of emotion and style to work and I found that balance to be missing. In some ways I, Tonya feels similar to David O’ Russel’s American Hustle. This is an homage to Martin Scorsese and is rather unsuccessful at pulling off the style that Scorsese was so good at. Although I think Craig Gillespie is better and more successful at this than Russel was. I, Tonya may not be always an engaging emotional watch but it is none of the less an engaging stylistic watch. The movie is filled with well-done dark comedy and colorful characters that you’ll swear was made up.
The performances are really what gives this movie the edge it needs to be successful. Margot Robbie is perhaps at her absolute best with her accent heavy acting performance of Tonya Harding. Robbie brings humanity and an edge to the character and always has a committed performance. Robbie carries the movie on her back. Sebastian Stan sheds his Winter Soldier role for Tonya’s husband and really stands out from his previous performances. As good as Robbie and Stan are, Allison Janney might have stolen the show from everyone as the tough as nails mother that pushes Harding to be the best she can be.
I, Tonya is an entertaining movie and one I had a good time watching. I don’t think it is a masterpiece and I think it fails to match its lofty ambitions. But, the performances really make this movie a must-see from simply that strength alone. If you haven’t seen this movie yet and there aren’t any movies currently catching your interest in theaters definitely try to check this out before the Oscars. It may not be the greatest film but it is an entertaining one.