TL;DR – An interesting look at the concept of an unreliable narrator, wonderfully acted, but there were some facets of the film that didn’t work for me.
Score – 3 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is a sort of mid-credit scene
From many angles I, Tonya is a fascinating film, it is incredibly well acted, it is telling the story of one of the weirdest moments in sports history, and it using a really interesting framing method to tell its story. However, while there were a lot of really fascinating factors at play here, there were also some real issues that I feel the unreliable narrator aspect really devalued and muddied the waters in an area that really should not have been. So today we are going to take a dive into the world of figure skating and look at the life of one person that challenged every part of the system.
So to set the scene, in the 1970s a somewhat abrasive lady LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney) took her young daughter Tonya (Maizie Smith) to figure skating classes with a local coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson). Diane won’t take Tonya on because she is too young, but then she sees her skate and everything changes. Soon young Tonya (Mckenna Grace) is winning competitions left, right, and centre and against much older girls. However, no matter the success her mother still treats Tonya poorly, something that does not change even when Tonya (Margot Robbie) grows up and leaves home to marry her maybe abusive husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan). But no matter what the world threw at her, The Olympics beckoned and she is the only one who could pull off a triple axel jump. Well this is history and history is fixed so we know what happened next … or do we?
Now the first thing I want to talk about is the powerful performances we see from across the cast, which was a delight to see. I have watched Allison Janney in a number of roles now from The West Wing to 10 Things I Hate About You and everything in-between, however, I don’t think I have seen her go to such a complicated place before with her acting. Yes, real people are complicated so that is bound to rub off in her performance, but it is more than that. LaVona has a drive that her children should have a better life than she had, and since she had a supportive family and ended up being a waitress, she takes a much more direct/abusive approach. Much like with Three Billboards (see review) the promotions are focusing on her foul language but it is a much more complicated performance than that that is both compelling but also off-putting. I was worried about some of the supporting cast that their performances were a bit over the top, for example, Paul Walter Hauser who plays Shawn Eckhardt Jeff’s friend, Tonya’s bodyguard and all around buffoon. However, at the end of the film, you get to see snippets of the real interviews and you discover, nope they are doing pitch-perfect recreations of the people they are playing.
As well as this, we have to talk about the phenomenal job Margot Robbie does playing the titular Tonya Harding. I have to give my great admiration for the job she does bringing this difficult character to the screen without slipping into parody. A good example of this is when Margot is playing the 16-year-old Tonya, she is coming to meet Jeff for the first time and there is that youthful interaction that is half awkward – half endearing. During this conversation, there is a moment when Jeff says something and Tonya goes to smile. She gets halfway and then you see in her eyes as she realises she has braces on her teeth and then she quickly stops. It is such a small moment but it felt real in a way you rarely see, and clearly shows just how unmistakably Margot had become the character. You also see it in the end when she is trying to maintain composure which much has been a really difficult scene to film as you travel across so many emotions in such a short amount of time. I also want to give credit to Margot and the filmmakers for the way they filmed the ice skating sequences, now it is clear that there was a mixture of Margot skating, stunt doubles, and also computer generated sequences. However, it all flows together really well, and it comes together into some spectacular set pieces throughout the film.
One of the narrative devices that I, Tonya uses a very interesting technique called the unreliable narrator. We are presented with the events from very different perspectives, and you can’t be sure if you are being told the truth, or who is telling the true story. Now, of course, this is not anything new with regards to storytelling, as you can draw examples from M*A*S*H, Farscape, The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, Hero, just to name a few. However, its use here is really important because I think it both makes the film, but it also raises a very important problem that I had with the film. So, of course, one of the great things about using this technique is that you keep your audience guesses as to what is the true story, indeed if there even is a sequence of events that could be called ‘the truth’. This gives the film a weird energy that only gets amplified when the attack in Detroit actually happens and everything starts falling apart. This is aided by the narrative being intercut with staged interview sequences like we are hearing their stories in real time, only mashed together. So you would have characters interjecting, breaking the 4th wall and all of it combines to make a fantastic telling of this truly absurd tale where it is nobodies fault because it is everyone else’s fault.
However, there is one conceit that you have to enter into when you want to pull off this style of narrative filmmaking, and that is saying that you are not telling who’s version of the story is correct. Now that is not usually a big issue, but it is here and that is because of one very important factor, abuse. All throughout the film we see examples of abuse directed towards Tonya, first by her mother, then by Jeff, and then by the system as a whole. Steven Rogers the writer stated in an interview after a SAG-AFTRA Foundation screening (see here) that “Well (the wildly different interviews with Tonya and Jeff), that’s my way in: to put everyone’s point of view out there, and then let the audience decide.” Now yes, sure, most of the time I’d be right there with you, but not here, and not with abuse, you can’t show Tonya getting beaten by her husband and then cut to Jeff saying he didn’t do it to muddy the waters, ok you can do this, but you really shouldn’t. There was a really powerful story about abuse women face in the world, from their parents, from their husbands, from the system that looks the other way, and then the film backtracks and goes “but maybe it didn’t happen” and that is a deep disappointment for me.
In the end, so we recommend I, Tonya? Yes, it may be a flawed film but it is still a deeply fascinating piece of cinema. The performances are excellent, the story is incredibly interesting, and while the down playing of the abuse is disappointing, it does not completely damage the main thrust of the film.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of I, Tonya
Directed by – Craig Gillespie
Written by – Steven Rogers
Music by – Peter Nashel
Cinematography by – Nicolas Karakatsanis
Edited by – Tatiana S. Riegel
Starring – Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Mckenna Grace, Maizie Smith, Julianne Nicholson, Caitlin Carver, Bojana Novakovic, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Dan Triandiflou & Ricky Russert
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: 12; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R