To most who remember the news coverage of the time, the story of Tonya Harding’s would-be “hit” on rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan feels like a one-note joke story of the nineties. If last year’s onslaught of O.J. Simpson material taught us anything though, it’s that there’s a surprising wealth of material to be found behind these stories, and it’s a wealth I, Tonya taps in vivaciously as a sort of updated answer to Gus van Sant’s To Die For.
Margot Robbie is, naturally, Tonya Harding – going full redneck as the iconic bad girl of US figure skating in a biopic that explores her sharp-edged relationship with abusive mother LaVonna (the superb Allison Janney) and the burgeoning romance with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastien Stan) that offers an all-too-brief escape. All of this domestic instability though serves as mere bedding for a professional life that sees Harding emerge as one of the defining talents of the sport, albeit in the face of elitism and a public that all too willingly buys into the trashy persona the media depicts for her – something that doesn’t help when those close to her decide to rig the competition in her favour by way of an attack on rival Kerrigan.
Undoubtedly the star vehicle Robbie’s been waiting for since her breakout turn in Wolf of Wall Street (a whopping four years ago now!), there’s a directorial energy here noticeably missing from helmer Craig Gillespie’s previous mainstream efforts in The Finest Hours and the best-forgotten Million Dollar Arm. The same can also be said for the otherwise decidedly fluff screenwriter Steven Rogers, who follows up on the laughably poor Christmas with the Coopers with something that has genuine substantive bite and satirical wit. With a director and screenwriter upping their game to such a degree then, it’s a sigh of relief that Robbie shows up ready to own this with all the rampant ferocity that made her one to watch in the first place.
As terrific as Robbie is though, she’s no match for the force of nature that is Allison Janney’s insidious LaVonna – a character that’ll effortlessly take her place in the pantheon of sinister cinema parents in years to come. Janney’s performance is built on toxicity and never waivers in how sublimely dark it’s willing to go within the mere inflection of a single line of dialogue. Try as he might, Sebastian Stan simply can’t keep up with either of his female co-stars, but that doesn’t stop him taking a damn fine shot at doing so, and, if nothing else, the Captain America star succeeds in humanising the walking punchline that is Jeff Gillooly in a manner you’d never have thought possible just two decades ago.
Ultimately, perhaps the smartest decision in crafting I, Tonya is that of leaning heavily into it’s meta-narrative on fame and American celebrity. A fourth wall-breaking acid-tongued dissection of an American crime story [sic], there’s fun and ferocity a plenty to be found in Robbie’s long-awaited and fully-fledged star vehicle. A confluence of top-of-their-game performers and career bests from both its writer and directors, don’t let this one skate by.