I, Tonya

(Not a robot; a robot would dress better)

O nce upon a time, metaphorical dumpster fires got more attention. I know it’s hard to believe when the most powerful man in the universe literally makes news every.single.day for being a jackass, but there was a time not-so-long ago when a bizarre scandal caught and kept the country’s focus for more than five seconds.

In the early 1990s, the three best ladies figure skaters in the United States (and, arguably, the world) were 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi and her Albertville also-rans: 1992 bronze medalist Nancy Kerrigan and fourth place finisher Tonya Harding. The latter two competed again in the 1994 Olympic Games at Lillehammer. While Kristy and Nancy were champions a country could be proud of, graceful both on and off the ice, Tonya Harding was trailer trash.  Harding represented a real-life Happy Gilmore, i.e. what happens when an athletic competition in which demeanor and refinement are prized is suddenly open to the crude and pedestrian.  One might think a country that prizes the self-made above the silver spoon set (or at least used to) would respond more favorably to a woman who won skating competitions strictly on talent –because, Lord knows, she sure as heck didn’t win for any other reason.  And perhaps we would have right up until the point where a Tonya Harding-connected thug bashed Nancy Kerrigan’s kneecap seven weeks before Lillehammer.

This is Tonya’s story, and, if anything, it’s worse than you imagined. Raised in a single parent home by an abusive mother (Allison Janney), Tonya learned how to take a punch and a fair amount about aggression both passive and demonstrative. Tonya’s mother is as cringe-worthy a role as there comes along – how do you explain where Tonya got the manners of a goat capable of swearing? Mom. I suppose dad didn’t help, either, but he left shortly after teaching the girl how to kill things. Was it any wonder Tonya moved out of the house as a teen and into the arms of mock-human Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan)? Most of this film is told in flashback form, where we get perspective from the older, bespectacled Gillooly, trying his best at a “calm Matt Damon” impression to describe the loser he once was. “That wasn’t me; that was a guy with a really weak moustache.  As you can see, I now have a weak goatee.  Completely different.”

Margot Robbie was assigned the delicious task of emulating Ms. Tabloid, 1994 Winter edition. Robbie is all at once too large, too old, and too pretty to be Tonya Harding, but I think we can forgive the slight miscast with the understanding that this ain’t a role a whole lot of folks can play. For one thing, you have to be a reasonable ice skater. Nobody is asking Robbie to do a triple axel, but for the parts where the camera does find her face, she’s got to resemble an Olympic figure skater, chain smoker, and trashy alcoholic. all at the same time.

This film is scattered with dark humor; how could it not be? The name Jeff Gillooly by itself is comic gold. And get a load of the circus car of idiots attached to Gillooly, including frequent companion Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who somehow fancied himself Tonya’s bodyguard and an international superspy without ever leaving his parents’ basement. Unfortunately, we know this tale; it’s real and it’s sad. Yes, there are laughs in this material, but they’re as much out of pity as observation. Yeah, it’s funny when mom calls a fellow skating parent a “cunt” right after being told to watch her language, and then we remember this isn’t fiction; this isn’t even exaggeration. Tonya really was trailer trash and it showed in everything she did.

I, Tonya wants to forgive Tonya Harding. While it doesn’t let Ms. Harding completely off the hook for her behavior, it certainly absolves her the crime of being poor and makes it very clear that her life was strongly influenced by an abusive single mother and an abusive jellyfish husband. Did she ever really have a chance? No, I don’t think so. This, to me, is exactly the same argument as the need to acknowledge self and societal privilege. Yeah, Tonya was her own worst enemy in many ways, but does the same thing happen if she grows up parented by the Yamaguchis or the Kerrigans? I’m guessing no.

♪She liked to skate
She was a mess
She was a portrait of recklessness

She was a punk
With Joan Crawford mom
Her life was one great big time bomb

She wanted gold
And told every judge
You know these people, they hold a grudge

She had no friends
For her pursuit
But check out this great big galoot

She was just skater trash
Her life is a culture clash
She wasn’t good enough for ma

She had a scowly face
And hand-sewed her own lace
Did she have a chance? I’m thinkin’ “naw” ♫

Rated R, 119 Minutes
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers
Genre: The face of sensationalism
Type of being most likely to enjoy this film: Tonya Harding, strangely enough
Type of being least likely to enjoy this film: LaVona Golden, mother of Tonya Harding

♪ Parody Inspired by “Sk8er Boi”

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