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5 Stars For I, Tonya (movie review)

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In January 1994, Tonya Harding ceased to be famous for figure skating and became infamous following an attack on her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan. A media frenzy erupted, which resulted with Tonya being banned from major competition for good.

But Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya reminds us, while it’s unclear how much she knew about it, Harding did not personally attack her rival, and her reputation as abhorrent is unfair.

We meet Harding as a child (played by Mckenna Grace), pushed into skating by her mother LaVona Fay Golden, portrayed by Allison Janney. Her mother insists on her daughter’s talent, pressuring local coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) into brutally training her since a young age. But motivating her daughter involves cruel treatment and the neglect of any of Harding’s needs outside skating. Her mother later admitted of taking her out of school so she’ll be dependent on her mother’s support. While Tonya shows her talent at a remarkable level for her age, Gillespie displayed very well how terrible her only outside relationship was in real life. The relationship we’re shown is physically and emotionally abusive.

As a teenager, Harding, now played by Margot Robbie, escapes her mother’s rules by dating a mechanic named Jeff Gillooly, portrayed by Sebastian Stan. While their on-off relationship is abusive, her talent is undeniable but rose slowly slowly due to being held back by judges more fixated on her unprofessional appearance than on her ability to land a triple axel with double toe loop. The movie represented the real situation well, showing if Harding had come from a wealthier background, she wouldn’t have been shunned by the skating community.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that the film sometimes gets distracted by shifting its fascination to the weird world of her unbelievable life. Gillespie adopts a free narrator led approach framed by contradicting interviews with an older Harding, her mother, and her future ex-husband. Many people compare this movie to GoodFellas, because of the soundtrack and quick cuts. But it’s a much less stylized film, shot under ugly fluorescent lights and in a more horrid angled approach of a real-life story.

Still, it consistently forces many to the edge of their seats. It’s a tale that assumes the audience’s understanding of Harding’s trial by media, then forcing us to reconsider. Harding was a victim who refused to act like it, putting up a tough face for the world. So the world assumed she was the “bad guy” for the incident. Until now, anyway.

I, Tonya is one of those films that gets better as it continues. Robbie grows into her role and she has a fascinating moment towards the very end: Tonya’s last skate. She is finally flinching from the ordeal of skating under a burden of fear, shame, resentment – and a terrible husband. The final skate represents the changes of her life that she is ready to conquer by herself. It ties all the pain she went through to be prepared for her last performance, to the pain she went through to be prepared for the rest of her life.

My favorite aspect of this movie is the remarkable actors and actresses Gillespie put together just in the right places. Allison Janney was rewarded with Best Supporting actress from the Golden Globes, Academy Awards, BAFTA, Critic’s Choice, and AACTA ceremonies. Also, Margot Robbie won Best Actress from the AACTA and Critic’s Choice ceremonies.

While Tonya Harding’s story is frightening to imagine, Craig Gillespie crafts a beautiful adventure, jerking tears from many eyes in the audience.

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5 Stars For I, Tonya (movie review)