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'I, Tonya' nails the landing on Tonya Harding's rough and tumble story

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in a scene from "I, Tonya." (Neon via AP)
Published Jan. 3, 2018

Tonya Harding was America's sweathog in a sport preferring sweethearts, an Olympic skater always competing on thin ice.

Craig Gillespie's hysterically accurate biopic I, Tonya sets up the punchline she became. Harding's spiteful rise and spectacular fall would make fine comedy even if they weren't true.

I, Tonya scores on higher degrees of difficulty, making these tabloid antics relatable and strangely sympathetic. Motives are clearer when so cleverly boiled down to stupidity, or as an escape from bad situations that might be solved with some genuine love. There's a little Tonya Harding in each of us, Gillespie's movie proposes, and it may be right.

Margot Robbie is a deserving Golden Globe nominee as Harding, a portrayal of hardscrabble payback to a parade of people doing her wrong. Judges score her lower for not being pretty enough. Her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), is abusive. And Tonya can certainly pin blame on LaVona, her mother from somewhere deeper than Hell played by Allison Janney to the despicable hilt.

We're informed at the outset that Steven Rogers' screenplay is "based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews" with Harding and Gillooly. Gillespie's movie follows that example with characters breaking the fourth wall to confirm or deny what's going on, not a reliable narrator among them. "This never happened," Tonya insists, chasing Jeff with a shotgun, ejecting a shell at the camera. Who knows?

An hour of LaVona's vile mothering and Jeff's abuse passes before "the incident," as everyone calls the hit to rival Nancy Kerrigan's knee. I, Tonya shifts into another gear when Jeff's buddy Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) waddles to center stage. Shawn's the self-proclaimed counterterrorism expert living in his parents' basement, plotting against Tonya's rival for Olympic gold. Dumbest mastermind ever, dragging down dumber people with him. Hauser's performance is an overlooked gem this awards season.

Gillespie's movie glides like a drunken skater, contained but changing direction with each tangent and tantrum. His visual centerpiece is the triple axel sequence, Tonya making with a jump first defined from everyone else's slant (LaVona: "… you have to be light as a feather, which God knows Tonya never was.") The pressure and precision is palpable, capped by Robbie's bursting physicality and seamless digital effects.

Watch how the routine begins, with Robbie's eyes fiercely fixed on the camera, signaling her athletic focus. In later routines her stare moves progressively farther offline as distractions mount.

Robbie will gaze directly at the lens only once after that, a remarkable single take of Tonya applying makeup. She slaps and rubs textures almost like punishment for competing, tears taking over, practicing a smile she isn't feeling. No words, yet Robbie says plenty, a great acting moment in one of 2017's best films.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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