It happens every other year: in a sea of great performances, one familiar actor or actress comes out of nowhere with a career-defining performance that has heads turning. Matthew McConaughey did it when he came out with Dallas Buyers Club, Brie Larson did it when she stole the awards season with Room, Jennifer Aniston shocked audiences with her turn in Cake, and now Margot Robbie has arrived from down under to claim her gold medal in I, Tonya.
The film depicts the life of figure skater Tonya Harding and her climb to the top, as she makes headlines more than once in the 90s both for her talent and for what is arguably the most famous sports story of the decade: the Nancy Kerrigan incident. The film is led by strong female leads in Margot Robbie and multi award-winning actress Allison Janney, as well as actor Sebastian Stan.
The unity of these three actors results in a trifecta that carries the film from beginning to end. Mom actress Allison Janney portrays Tonya’s ruthless, opportunist mother LaVona, pushing her daughter to uncomfortable extremes in pursuit of a better skating career. And while that might sound like the typical skater mom, LaVona’s motives remain questionable all the way through; while she works day and night to provide her daughter with the means to pursue skating, she also belittles Tonya’s achievements and is never satisfied with her, both as a performer and as a person. Impersonal to the core through and through, the character would not have been so complexly portrayed had it not been for Janney, who brings LaVona to life in more ways than one. Without a doubt, Janney’s performance is one of the best supporting roles all year.
Sebastian Stan portrays Jeff Gillooly, Tonya Harding’s husband, made famous for his tumultuous on-again, off-again marriage with Harding. Part of I, Tonya’s attraction — and the reason Craig Gillespie decided to make the movie the way he did — is in the conflicting and often contradictory stories of the same events told by the people who lived them. And as such , the relationships between the characters are at times fogged. Stan succeeds at playing the darker parts of his character with as much authenticity as he does the lighter parts, but it is eventually the lighter side that prevails — and that’s very clearly one of two interpretations of Mr. Gillooly, as per Harding.
Often times, casting directors aren’t given their due credit, but Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu’s brilliant choices in cast cannot be ignored, and I imagine the ensemble will be nominated for an award or two for the great work they do as a group. In spite of that, however, Margot Robbie manages to outshine them all in a tour-de-force that will have her name be repeated over and over at awards ceremonies. To say that Robbie excels is an understatement. The role offers her quite a generous range that she employs to the fullest, from her tough street persona to the athlete seeking perfection. Her performance’s climax comes in a familiar mirror scene where Robbie channels a cross between her Harley Quinn persona form Suicide Squad and Nina from Black Swan that will leave viewers in awe of her talent. In 15 seconds, she communicates a rollercoaster of emotions that’ll take her right to the Dolby Theater come Oscar night.
Essential to the film’s aesthetic is its production — mainly, it’s hair, makeup, and costume teams, which are able to transport viewers across the different decades the film is set in. Be it on the rink or off it, the film visually compliments the talent of its ensemble and sets a stark contrast between the glamourous life of Tonya Harding, America’s best figure skater, and the troubled life she leads out of her skates.
How I, Tonya is different from similar films in nature is the self-reflective storytelling form it assumes. From time to time, the characters interject themselves and address the viewers, either directly or by positioning the interviewers at the audience’s point of view in real time. This metaphysical layer of narrating the story truly transforms the viewing experience early on, disguising Tonya’s tragic life with humour. However, this very feature plays against the film for the simple reason that part of it disappears at some point. The lack of consistency in the interjections within the scenes themselves is noticeable, and this goes back to a larger problem and the film’s main flaw.
From Ice Princess to the The Cutting Edge series, the 2000s were big on the underdog ice-skater tale, but what these films did was set up a certain narrative trail that sees the heroine (usually) go from ordinary girl to champion figure skater. This structure is present in the parts of I, Tonya that are related to her performance in competition, then completely absent from the rest, making for a very dichotomous viewing experience: the figure skater’s rise to stardom versus the troubling crime documentary she is involved in. The film alternates between the two — as opposed to having one compliment the other — so much so that the transitions are quite rough, the inability to reconcile the two dragging in certain scenes in the process.
I, Tonya is a staggering showcase of its cast and crew’s talent, but falls shy of greatness because of its shaky plot direction and inconsistent storytelling. Still, the performances of the cast should demand the attention of cinephiles. If I, Tonya is any indication of Robbie and Janney’s talents, expect great things in their careers moving forward — perhaps even a statuette or two.