Tropic Sprockets / I, Tonya

By Ian Brockway

Craig Gilespie directs an excellent Oscar nominated biopic on the talented Olympic skater Tonya Harding, and a detailed narrative of the horrid event that she was implicated in: the assault against Nancy Kerrigan during training for the 1994 Olympics. The film, which would be the territory of director John Waters if it were not true is devastating, punchy, irreverent, and compelling through and through.

Actor Margot Robbie is nearly invisible under the vibration of Harding. As a performance it is so immersive it is almost an act of hypnosis, it is so total and complete. Right from the get go, Tonya the toddler is plunged in a frightful and miserable condition with mother (Allison Janney) who wields her parental authority with a trifecta of withering ridicule, fear and abusive force. She taunts her daughter with a jagged mirror, shoves her across the kitchen and at one shocking moment, hurls a knife into her arm. Events are terrible enough but one hates to think what would have happened if Tonya didn’t like to skate.

The one bit of sunshine is that Harding is a brilliant skater and she lives it. Out of the blue, Harding meets the colorless dullard, Jeff Gilolli (Sebastian Stan) and the two fall in love. Harding thinks she has reached a kind of bliss, away from her mother’s vile nastiness, but sadly Gilolli hits Harding just as much as mom if not more.

Such episodes would be depressing were it not for Margot Robbie breaking the fourth wall and talking to us through the camera, becoming a sharply acidic but comical anti-hero. By the end of the film, while you might not be rooting for her, sympathy is no doubt unavoidable.

Allison Janney is wonderful as Tonya’s mother who chain smokes and treads with a palpable anger. Janney is nominated for an Oscar and is an honor she richly deserves. Curiously, as with Robbie, her bluntness has such an explosive delivery that it comes across with an irreverent humor, almost in the manner of the aforementioned John Waters. Perfectly outrageous too is the self-centered and pathetic Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) Giloolli’s constant sidekick and a macho man wanna-be who lives in his parents’ basement.

Despite the dark humor, “I,Tonya†is tough to watch; the film tells its story honestly. What emerges, along with the bitter goings on, is a portrait of a talented athlete who refuses to totally give in and become consumed by her petty and hateful surroundings.

What is indisputable is that Tanya Harding was a great skater, and at one time the very best. From the film’s perspective, her tragedy at a crucial moment was that she wasn’t strong enough to rise above her shallow and angry environment and embrace her skill, heartstoppingly adept at the nearly unachievable Triple Axel.

One can take cold comfort that Harding is now at a kind of peace if not absolute; she is happily remarried with a family of her own after being sentenced to permanent ostracism from any skate association and barred for life from competition in the United States.

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