Movie Review – I, Tonya (2017)

Skating and knee-capping!

BQB here with a review of the skater girl gone (allegedly) bad, I, Tonya.

Despite hearing rave reviews, I delayed watching this thing because, like most Gen Xers, I felt I know enough about the story, seeing as how if you were sentient during the 1990s, then it was the only thing anyone ever talked about on TV for the longest time.

For those who were too young or, gasp, born after the events, here’s a primer.  In 1994, ice skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed in the knee while practicing at an ice rink in Detroit.  Blah, blah, blah, investigations ensued and what is usually a light, moderately followed sport (I mean, you rarely see that much controversy in women’s figure skating) became a ratings bonanza.

As a dark cloud of suspicion hanged over Tonya Harding, she and Nancy competed for America in the Winter Olympics even though questions loomed, i.e. was it even fair for Tonya to be participating if her opponent was clubbed?

By the way, what exactly happened leading up to the clubbing?  Doubtful we’ll ever know for sure, though Tonya, ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (a fun name even today) and ex-husband’s friend Shawn Eckhardt all faced some form of criminal liability.

Theories have abounded over the years of who exactly was involved in what, who asked who to do what, who knew about what, etc.  This film takes the premise that Tonya may have been aware of an attempt to prank Nancy with a false death threat to mess with her head, that Gillooly enlisted his overweight, dumb, delusional (he thinks he’s a spy/counter-terrorist operative though he clearly isn’t) to find a buddy willing to mail the letter from Nancy’s home state and somehow in all that mess, Shawn goes way too far and enlists a dumb flunky to bash Nancy’s knee.

Thus, if we’re ranking just by sheer stupidity, then based on this film, we’d put Shawn at top, Jeff in the middle and Tonya on the bottom.

Overall, that’s been the question that has long loomed over Tonya Harding.  If she was unaware of the attack until after it happened, then it’s not fair to blame her for the stupidity of her ex-husband and friend.  If she was involved or somehow knew what was going to happen, then she shouldn’t have been allowed to participate in the Olympics.

We’ll probably never know for sure and that’s usually the rub when trying to create a fun, engaging film about historic events.  None of us were there and accounts come from all different sides, often competing and conflicting with one another.

The film handles this well, making it clear we can never fully be sure what exactly happened in the events that led up to the infamous knee whack.  Fourth wall breaks are extensively utilized, often during which characters turn to the camera to critique another character’s claim.  For example, Margot Robbie as Tonya, fed up with being used as a punching bag one too many times by her abusive husband (Sebastian Stan) grabs a shotgun and knocks a cabinet door off its hinges with a blast that had been meant for Gillooly’s head.  She then scoffs at the incident, looks to the camera and says, “This never happened!” then throws the gun down.

Ultimately, characters are featured in straight interviews, leading to fully acted out sequences, and then occasionally characters break the action to tell the audience the other character is wrong and here’s what really happened.  It’s fun, funny, and handles the difficult job of sorting through a puzzle that no one could really ever put together fully and still be one-hundred percent sure of the outcome.

Between the news coverage of the day, and ensuing documentaries and yes, I think there might have even been a made for TV movie or two, I thought I’d heard it all about this case but this film really delves into Tonya’ life.

Specifically, we learn about her abusive mother, LaVon, played aptly by Allison Janney, who earned every bit of her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

In the world of girls’ figure skating, i.e. a world of prim and proper skinny young girls with polished mothers who treat their children as prized possessions and fawn over their every accomplishment, the Hardings stuck out like a duo of sore thumbs.  LaVonn and her giant, outdated for even the 90s spectacles, sits on the sidelines, chain smoking, drinking out of a flask, and shouting every manner of obscenity at Tonya in an effort, she claims, to make her skate better, and even directs her bile at fellow mothers and coaches.  Hearing a skate mom drop words like “fuck” and “cunt” around all of the refined mothers is equally disturbing and funny.

What’s the big theme of the movie?  If you’re born into shit, then it’s pretty difficult to wash the shit stink off yourself, no matter how hard you try.  Undoubtedly, Tonya is a great skater, being the only American woman to ever land a triple axel, a highly complicated move.  Yet, try as she might, the judges and fans see her as an unpolished hayseed, a wannabe.  She’s a bit bigger and less classier than the other girls.  In a world where wealthy moms gladly spend all their time and money getting their little competitors to the best coaches and are able to shell out big bucks on costumes and equipment, Tonya’s only resource is her hard ass waitress mother who hurls all manner of abuse at her daughter, both verbal and physical.

Her only other resource is boyfriend, later husband, Jeff, who physically abuses Tonya constantly, and honestly some of the scenes where he flat out cold cocks her are a bit too much to watch.  Oddly, in a way, I can’t tell if the movie is trying to let Jeff off the hook by portraying him  as a somewhat charming dweeb who attempts to prove his manliness by beating on his woman and that because he’s a dumb redneck born into crap, he doesn’t know any better, or if they’re trying to say, yeah here’s the man’s savagery on full display but he does need to communicate with the audience and make an occasional joke to keep the story moving.

I empathize with the “shit stink you’re born with” doesn’t wash off vibe.  Sadly, so much of our entire lives are decided before we’re even born, and also before we turn 18.  How we are parented impacts our world view, our thoughts, feelings, emotions and even how others see us.

All the other skater girls have it made, if you think about the amount of money and time a parent has to be willing to put into making a child’s dream of Olympic gold come true.  Tonya has none of these advantages but tries to overcome them with the very little support she has, being attacked by mother and husband all the while, and still manages to be a competitor.

Something we can take away?  Perhaps, if someone gets the job done, we shouldn’t worry about how they look, or how they talk, or their personal life and so on.  If they get the job done, then they get the job done.  If we overlook the part where the job is getting done and focus on whether or not the person fits the usual mold, then we’ll never allow people the opportunity to raise themselves out of bad situations they were born in.

In other words, you can’t say, “Hey, if you were born into crap then stop being lazy and pull yourself out of it” and then also say, “Get back into the crap, you don’t belong here!”

Overall, we may never know fully how the attack went down.  If Tonya participated in it somehow, then she sucks.  If she didn’t, then she was a victim of a shitty life and a shitty family that followed her wherever she went, dragging her down no matter how hard she tried to escape it.  Ironically, had the attack never went down, she probably had a good chance of bringing home a medal of some kind.

One more thing – I get the willingness to want to sympathize with Tonya.  We all have stories about how we suffer due to things we can’t control, choices made by others that we can’t overcome.

Still, I always wince a little whenever it was suggested that Nancy Kerrigan was somehow the villain in all of this.  This movie sort of dances a toe into those waters but never goes there all the way.  Was Nancy one of those prim and proper girls with a supportive family and all the class and grace that the judges wanted?  Yes.  Did she still put a lot of work in?  Yes.  Did she deserve to get clubbed in the knee?  No.  Was she a bad person for getting upset that her knee was bashed and worrying about how all her work was for nothing if she can’t compete due to a knee injury (leading to the infamous “Why me?” tape).  No, she didn’t do anything wrong and if she was peeved for only getting the silver, it’s probably because the thought might always linger – maybe if she hadn’t been clubbed she would have taken the gold.

Then again, I suppose had the incident never taken place, all the 1994 figure skaters would have obscured their way into history.  Can you name another figure skater from another year (other than the most recent?)  Kristy Yamaguchi and Oksana Baiul are the only ones I can muster, and only because they were competing that year against Tonya and Nancy.

STATUS: Shelf-worthy. Deserved a bit more Oscar attention than it received.

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