Powered by knockout performances from both Margot Robbie & Allison Janney, I, Tonya brings the story of one of America’s finest figure skaters to cinematic life in a stylish fashion but the impact of its emotionally resonant moments is rendered null by narrative choices that simply don’t work together.
I, Tonya tells the story of Tonya Harding, the first American woman to successfully land a triple axel in figure skating competition, and covers her ice skating journey from childhood to the controversial incident that ended her career for good. The plot also focuses on the abusive relationships that were part of her personal life.
Directed by Craig Gillespie, the film employs narrative techniques like interviews shot in mockumentary style & fourth wall breaking but the only time it manages to be gripping is when our protagonist is on the ice rink. Her abuse at the hands of her mother & husband is disturbing to watch yet most of the time, it is played for laughs.
Add to its off-putting humour, most characters in it are just spiteful. And though it gives us more reason to root for Tonya, the terrible choices she keeps making all her life only makes us question our investment in her journey. It’s a tragic tale but it isn’t treated right, or with respect, thus resulting in a movie that only impresses in bits n pieces.
The white trash community isn’t illustrated from any new angle. Camerawork is at its best when capturing Tonya doing what she does best. Pacing isn’t an issue for the most part but a tighter editing could’ve resulted in a more compact structure. The stunt team that performed or choreographed the skating moments deserves kudos. And its musical choices are unusual yet fitting.
Many moments are shot in a way so as to appear strikingly similar to the real-life footage and it also offers a number of takes on the scandal that eventually led to Tonya being banned from the sport. Filled to the brim with bums, there is nothing to like about any of the supporting characters plus they get way more screen time than required in the final print.
Coming to the performances, I, Tonya is spearheaded by Margot Robbie’s show-stealing performance as she plays her physically & emotionally demanding role with finesse and is at her absolute best during the final act. Much is made about Allison Janney’s input but for me, it’s Robbie who impresses the most. Sebastian Stan, however, plays a loser with effortless ease.
On an overall scale, I, Tonya is a well-crafted biopic that could’ve been much more than what the filmmakers ultimately settle for. The various subplots aren’t always aligned in the same direction, resulting in a narrative flow that isn’t streamlined at all. It is entertaining and will manage to keep the audience around till the end but its fragmented structure hampers the film’s prospect of being counted amongst the better examples of its genre(s).