Advertisement
  1. Movies

'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)
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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. "Jumanji: The Next Level" stars, from left, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson and Karen Gillan. [FRANK MASI  |  Sony Pictures]
    ‘Black Christmas’ and ‘The Two Popes’ also open ahead of the holiday.
  2. Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, shown here in the 1978 film "Grease," will make an appearance in Tampa on Dec. 14 for a film sing-along and meet and greet with fans. [AP]
    The forever Sandy Olsson and Danny Zuko will reunite for a sing-along screening on Saturday at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre.
  3. From left: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry in "Waves." [Courtesy of A24]
    It is the third time production company A24 has shot here.
  4. Alexa Demie, left, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in "Waves." [Courtesy of A24]
    ‘Frankie,’ ‘Playmobil: The Movie’ and ‘Marriage Story’ also open, and the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival begins.
  5. Ana De Aramas and Daniel Craig in "Knives Out." [CLAIRE FOLGER  |  Lionsgate]
    Plus, a screening of ‘5B’ for World AIDS Day and Tampa Theatre shows 'Miracle on 34th Street’ as part of its holiday film series.
  6. "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" stars Tom Hanks. [LACEY TERRELL  |  TriStar Pictures/Sony Pictures]
    ‘21 Bridges’ and 'The Irishman’ also open locally, plus a film in the park and the anniversary screening of ‘Galaxy Quest.’
  7. Director Dan Myrick, left, and Kristian Krempel are pictured on Seventh Avenue in Tampa's Ybor City.
    The series features six 15-minute fictional horror stories based on Ybor history.
  8. Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska and Naomi Scott in "Charlie's Angels." [MERIE WEISMILLER WALLACE  |  Columbia Pictures]
    Screenings of ‘Turning Point’ and ‘Lionel Richie at Glastonbury’ are also in store for the week.
  9. FILE - In this April 3, 2019, file photo characters from Disney and Fox movies are displayed behind Cathleen Taff, president of distribution, franchise management, business and audience insight for Walt Disney Studios during the Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures presentation at CinemaCon 2019, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. On Tuesday, Nov. 12, Disney Plus launches its streaming service. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File) [CHRIS PIZZELLO  |  Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP]
    The Walt Disney Company’s foray into streaming services is off with a few hitches
  10. The Blair Witch Project director Dan Myrick, left, and his production company partner Kristian Krempel on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City.
[OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
    The production company estimates it will spend over $1 million locally
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement