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September 12, 2017

Toronto Film Review: Margot Robbie in ‘I, Tonya’

Margot Robbie gives a delectable performance as Tonya Harding in a biopic that saves her from infamy by being cheeky but real.

VARIETY
Written by Chief Film Critic, Variety
September 9, 2017

ITonya,” a riff on the Tonya Harding saga starring Margot Robbie as the infamous figure skater the whole world decided it loved to hate, is a fresh, chancy, and wickedly enjoyable movie. It’s framed as a fake documentary (it opens with the characters being interviewed 20 years later), and it has a tone of poker-faced goofball Americana that suggests a biopic made by the Coen brothers. The movie revels in the sheer woeful ghastly comic horror of what went on during the lead-up to the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer — the smashed knee of Nancy Kerrigan, the whole scheme to undermine her that was even more cracked.

For a while, you may make the mistake of thinking that “I, Tonya” is a joke: a blithe spoof of Tabloid Nation. It is that, yet it’s also built around something piercingly sharp and sincere: Margot Robbie’s canny, live-wire, deeply sympathetic performance. In case there was any doubt (some might say “Who knew?”), she’s a major actress. She plays Tonya as a trash princess who has nothing to cling to but her passion to skate, and has been so abused by life that it’s her karma to abuse it back.

That the film has chosen a person of such cheesy notoriety as its heroine may sound like the height of dramatic irony. But Tonya Harding was, and is, a figure of rather innocent dreams who became an outcast, and her story — her real story — has more layers than you think. Ever since the ’70s, American movies have been full of scoundrels, hoodlums, and sociopaths who do all kinds of outrageous and indefensible things, but just about all of them are men, and even their worst behavior gets held up to the light as a mirror of our own darkness. I’m thinking of characters like Johnny Boy in “Mean Streets,” Sonny in “Dog Day Afternoon,” Paul Snider in “Star 80,” or Dirk Diggler in “Boogie Nights.” “I, Tonya,” in its lightly impervious yet inquiring way, presents Tonya Harding as the female heir to all those holy paragons of disreputability. It’s about time we had a world-class feminine lowlife to root for, and this, at long last, is that movie.

It’s a serious blast, with a plot that zigs and zags (but only because it sticks, within reason, to the facts), and a cast of characters who are so eccentrically scuzzy that maybe no one could have dreamed them up. When Tonya is three, she’s taken to a skating class in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, by her hard-bitten waitress of a mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), who is really a monster. She pushes the little girl out onto the ice, where Tonya is happy enough, but this mother won’t stop pushing, and the terror of it is that every thought she has is a punitive whiplash of negative energy.

Allison Janney, with cropped hair and big glasses, her face a scowl of displeasure as she blows out smoke from thin brown cigarettes, keeps spewing rapid-fire lines of toxic obscenity and ire like “I’m a gardener who wants to be a flower. How f—-ed am I?” She makes you chuckle — often — yet just because her performance is funny doesn’t meant that it’s not serious. Janney enters the soul of the kind of parent who’s a drive-by destroyer, molding her child, almost by design, into someone who will never believe in herself.

Director: Craig Gillespie
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel

Sound Edit & Mix were handled by Harbor’s own Dave Paterson. Offline Editorial services also provided by Harbor.

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