Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, February 17, 2018

OSCARS 2018: I, Tonya (2017)

A while ago, for reasons now I can't exactly recall, I looked up Tonya Harding on Wikipedia. I was six years old in 1994 when the entire scandal went down and only had vague memories of it, filtered through years of late night jokes and Weird Al songs. Upon hearing the ice skater's life story, I was struck by how compellingly unusual it was, thinking it would make a good film. Only a few days later, I read that a movie about Harding's life was in development. It was a rather cosmic bit of timing. From the moment images and trailers came out, it was apparent that “I, Tonya” wasn't going to be quite your typical Oscar-friendly biopic.

The film is framed by interviews with Harding, her mother, her former coach and her ex-husbands. Raised by an abusive mother and a father who taught her to hunt and work on cars, she was a bit of a tomboy. However, Tonya had one love above all: Ice skating. She began classes at four, pushed by her harsh mother. By the time she was a teenager, she could perform a triple axel, one of the most difficult maneuvers in skating. Her skill and raw talents won her medals but judges found her attitude off-putting. A volatile relationship with an asshole boyfriend and technical failures prevent her from grabbing the Gold at the Olympics. Eventually, a plot is cooked to sabotage a rival.

“I, Tonya” gives Harding the fair treatment she's been denied for far too long. She had a very hard life, casually abused by a harsh, emotionally distant mother and then hit and attacked by an emotionally unstable boyfriend/husband. “I, Tonya,” for a while, makes it look like LaVona Harding's shitty behavior and constant mistreatment somehow made Tonya stronger or harder... Before dismissing this, in a hilarious and blunt way. Attention is draw to how cruel and imbecilic the people around Tonya were. This does not excuse her of whatever wrong doing she played in what happened but a great deal of context is provided. More than anything else, “I, Tonya” makes you really like Harding. She's portrayed as scrappy, independent, and insightful in her own way, refusing to back down from those that treated her unfairly.

Craig Gillespie's film is also really funny. Some of the characters and events in the film are so outrageous, fact truly being stranger than fiction, that a natural humor emerges. Such as Jeff Gillooly's idiotic best friend, Shawn, a compulsive liar who still lives with his mom. Or the frequently outrageous behavior of Harding's own mother. The interview framing device allows the movie to frequently break the fourth wall. Harding and other characters will directly address the audiences, either dismissing or confirming the events portrayed on-screen. Gillespie's direction matches this pitch. The camera often races through the ice rink with Harding, matching the speed and grace of her movements, further impacting on the audience the amount of skill involved in her routine.

Unlike many Academy-approved biopics, “I, Tonya” is not just a delivery system for some showy performances. Which isn't to say the performances aren't showy. Despite appearing in quite a few high-profile movies, this is the first time I've really been sold on Margot Robbie. Robbie is hilarious and powerful, biting into Harding's dialogue, spitting wild statements like venom. As LaVona Harding, Allison Janney is essentially playing an evil version of Bonnie, her character on the sitcom “Mom.” She almost never smiles, using every opportunity to undermine her daughter's success. Janney makes LaVona's outrageous behavior funny without underselling what a monster she was, painting a picture of a heartless woman. Sebastian Stan, the buff Winter Solider, is unrecognizable in the scrawny Jeff Gillooly. Stan sacrifices any actorly dignity as the nervous, pathetic shrimp of a toxic man. (Though the film actually underplays how terrible of a person Gillooly was in real life.) It's a fantastic cast.

Honestly, my biggest disappointment about “I, Tonya” is that it focuses primarily on Harding's ice skating career and the following scandal. I was really hoping the movie would make more room for the boxing, the sex tape, the rock band, that time she saved an old lady's life. She's had a truly bizarre, unique life. Some of the needle drops on the soundtrack are a little too on-the-nose too. (And I wish they could've used that lovely Sufjan Stevens song somewhere.) For the most part, “I, Tonya” is a funny, sad, energetic, and beautifully performed motion picture. I don't know which notorious nineties woman will get the biopic treatment next – Lorena Bobbitt? Mary Kay Letourneau? – but I'd welcome that wave of revisionism, that recognizes these women as people, not punchlines. [7/10]

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