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TIFF 2017: I, Tonya Review

Special Presentations

Aside from the President getting oral sex in the oval office and the ex-football star accused of murdering his wife, there were few news stories in the 90s as big as the one that rocked the world of competitive figure skating. While training for the 1994 winter olympics, Nancy Kerrigan (basically the Anne Hathaway of figure skating) was assaulted in an attack that was clearly meant to take her out of competition. It wasn’t long before competitor Tonya Harding (the Honey Boo Boo of figure skating) was implicated in the attack, along with her husband and bodyguard.

It’s a story so outlandish (and apparently dated), that star Margot Robbie, who would have been about 4 years old at the time, didn’t even realize it was true when she first read the script. Framed by dramatized testimonials based on real, often contradictory interviews with Tonya, her mother (Allison Janney), coach (Julianne Nicholson), and ex-husband (Sebastian Stan), the film tries to stick to the facts while also finding plenty of humour in the situation. In fact, I don’t know what was more surprising, how funny I, Tonya was, or the amount of scenes which included aggressive domestic violence against Tonya at the hands of her mother and her ex. It’s an uncomfortable mix to be sure, but to leave the unsavoury stuff out entirely would also be a disservice to the story.

One thing is for sure, Craig Gillespie directs the hell out of this thing, adding to his already diverse filmography which includes Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours, and the Fright Night remake. He’s clearly borrowing a few pages out of Scorsese’s book to make this movie soar. Often breaking the fourth wall, Gillespie also utilizes fancy camera movements, slow-motion, and a kick ass classic rock soundtrack. It’s a fun homage that’s up there with other recent successes like The Big Short and War Dogs.

Speaking of The Big Short, let’s talk about Margot Robbie for a minute. She doesn’t look anything like Tonya Harding, but that doesn’t matter, we can all agree she’s great and we love her. This is probably her best performance to date, but it’s a safe bet that the best is yet to come. Moving on.

The unexpected standout from the supporting cast is Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt, Tonya’s hilariously diluted “bodyguard” who it turns out was more like her ex’s hanger-on loser buddy. At one point the film becomes almost a full-out dumb criminal movie with Eckhardt at the centre of the worst planned conspiracy of all time. It’s left ambiguous exactly how culpable Tonya really was, as Kerrigan’s attack is depicted almost more like a comedy of errors. Bobby Cannavale also lends his comedic chops in a cameo as a sleazy Hard Copy reporter contributing to the testimonials. 

I don’t know what prompted screenwriter Steven Rogers, who’s mostly penned romantic dramedies like Hope Floats and Stepmom, to approach to this story that few have thought about in over two decades, but I’m glad he did. Taken from the tabloids of yore,  I, Tonya is an unexpected, entertaining showcase for some engaging performances and dynamic directing.


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