The kindest thing I can say about I, Tonya is that it has its moments. Margot Robbie, perhaps denied the chance to play rough before, has never been better than she is as Tonya Harding, the real-life hardscrabble figure skating dynamo from the Pacific Northwest, whose downfall was in many ways caused by the same determination, grit, and ruthlessness that made her one of America’s greatest athletes.
It’s also true that director Craig Gillespie’s style is playful and exhilarating with fast edits, bright ’90s colors, and moments when Tonya speaks directly to the audience à la Zach Morris. There are times when the script, by Steven Rogers, is laugh-out-loud funny. But then you realize who and what it is that you’re laughing at.
There’s an undeniable mean streak that spoils this long-awaited Harding biopic, which charts the troubled skater’s life from childhood through the incident when her rival Nancy Kerrigan was handicapped by a hitman (hired by Shawn Eckardt, a friend of Harding’s ex husband Jeff Gilooly) during the 1994 Olympic trials, and then into the Lillehammer Olympics where Harding suffered an embarrassing defeat. Harding—deservedly and undeservedly—has suffered a lot in real life and now I, Tonya is here to add to that suffering.
Where Harding was initially rejected by the skating world (despite her incredible athletic prowess) for her inability to hide her impoverished background—unlike Kerrigan, who also comes from a blue-collar family—this film doubles down, gleefully depicting her life as a farce or jamboree populated by kooky impoverished white people. Scenes of physical abuse are seen in glib montages set to an anachronistic soundtrack of rollicking ’70s rock songs (the story takes place in the ‘80s and ‘90s)—played for laughs rather than for pathos. In these scenes, both she and Gilooly (played by Sebastian Stan) pause and address the camera with differing accounts of the violence in their relationship, adding—even in the moment of Harding’s head getting smashed into a mirror—a reminder that this abuse victim is an unreliable narrator. Ha-ha, right?
It’s true that Harding’s story—for better or worse—is inescapably campy. Even in reality, she’s a larger-than-life, unsympathetic character: a tough-to-root-for whiner who’s publicly never taken responsibility for her poor choices. And so it makes sense that an onscreen depiction of her would come off the same way (if not worse). But Harding’s likability should have nothing to do with the way we view domestic assault and, despite what I, Tonya posits, there’s nothing funny about the scene in which Harding’s mother LaVona Golden—played by Allison Janney—forces young Tonya (Mckenna Grace) to skate until she wets herself on the ice and, at another point, beats her in the rink bathroom with a hairbrush. Similarly humorless is watching Stan repeatedly hit Robbie and how, in turn, she threatens him with a shotgun and then he punches her some more. And yet, perhaps because the universally adored Janney is a funny LaVona, the audience at my screening was laughing anyway, something the filmmakers then—in a jarring turn—try to flip back onto the audience.
Describing her rise and fall, an aged Robbie, padded in prosthetics and a fat suit, looks into the camera at the audience and says, “I was loved. And then I was hated. Then I was just a punchline. It was like being abused again, only this time by you. All of you.”
It’s a deeply annoying accusation from a film that’s spent the last hour attempting to get the audience to celebrate Harding’s abuse, but I guess that points out a larger problem with the film’s tone, which seems like it’s trying to be camp and prestige all at once. (Worth noting that John Waters—the king of camp—regularly depicts low-income white Americans in fun and silly ways yet somehow always manages to be kind.)
Harding, as imperfect a protagonist as they come, doesn’t need aggrandizing, but she doesn’t need degrading, either. She was one of the best skaters in American history, the first American to ever land a triple axel. More importantly, she’s a real human—both a victim of circumstance and culprit in her own destruction—who, after being banned from U.S. figure skating, was left unemployed and without a high school diploma. Paparazzi would call to have her truck towed, all so that they could photograph her looking harried when she ran outside to stop it. Believe me, it pains me to say this as someone who’s firmly Team Nancy, but Harding doesn’t deserve this.
Disconnect the film from the people it’s depicting and you’ll probably find much of it enjoyable (I suspect most people will—it currently has a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes). The costumes are fun, the performances are great, and yes, there’s some joy in watching the pure stupidity of Eckardt and Gilooly’s plan to take down Kerrigan and the subsequent fallout. But if what you’re looking for is a nuanced depiction of a truly captivating moment in America’s history—of athletic scandals and beyond—back-burner I, Tonya and watch Nanette Burstein’s engrossing ESPN documentary The Price of Gold instead. You’ll get all of the entertainment, with none of the nastiness.