Far from a documentary or even a biopic, I, Tonya tells a story of figure skater Tonya Harding's life leading up to her run for the Olympics and the events surrounding the events of fellow American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, whose kneecap was bashed in by an assailant after a practice. Did she do it? Was she involved? Did she maybe even do it herself, as so many of us seem to recall? These are the questions that are asked repeatedly of her after the event and for years after.
But those that beg that question now are missing the point, not just of the film but of the whole ordeal. Somehow Margot Robbie, the actress who also produced this film, is able to bring a complex sympathy for Harding as she portrays a girl who grew up in an abusive home before moving onto an abusive marriage. She was a girl who didn't fit the mold of what society or the figure skating world deemed proper. The media pitted her against Kerrigan, the "princess" of skating, who shot wholesome commercials for Campbell's soup and wore skating costumes designed by Vera Wang. What the film doesn't do, thankfully, is reduce Harding to a schlocky media-friendly amenable caricature. Harding is fueled by rage and hurt, and her disavowals of blame often contradict themselves.
It's these contradictions that make the most impact. As Harding and her ex-husband (played by Sebastian Stan) give on-screen differing reports of what happen, we often get the feeling that sometimes they don't even know how it all went down. When Harding gets her face smashed through a mirror, her detached breaking of the fourth wall as she talks to us directly after is even more impactful, emphasizing how routine this is for her. It's a stark (perhaps calculated) difference from when Kerrigan takes the hit to the knee and wails with more emotion than Harding conveys from a knife in the arm.
And it's the acting performances here which buoy the movie just as much as the writing. Robbie is a dynamo and a smashing revelation. She runs the gamut, able to show Harding's unbridled glee at victory (which is as much a personal triumph as an "F you" to everyone around her), her spitting hurt caustic verbal lashings, and the very real vulnerability as she corners a judge in the parking lot and asks him why she isn't getting the scores she deserves. Allison Janney crackles as her mother, unapologetic in her abuse. Her delivery of one-line screen-stealers merits her nomination of a Golden Globe, but it's her long, inscrutable examination of Harding's multiple skating performances that merit Janney's win.
I, Tonya isn't a movie that you'd think edifying or even entertaining, but the Harding's rise and fall puts a mirror onto ourselves even as it painfully exposes the movie's characters. No one asks the culpability of Henry Hill in Goodfellas or those peopling American Hustle, and I, Tonya doesn't force us to decide on an answer. Instead, it somehow uses the lens of fourth wall-breaking, black comedy, to offer Tonya Harding what she didn't have before: a fair chance.