I, Tonya is Dreck on Ice


I, TONYA (2017)
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Neon Films, 119 Minutes, R (brief nudity, violence, language, smoking)

I have talked to people who refuse to go see I, Tonya because they think Tonya Harding is a disgusting human being. That’s natural enough, given that I live in Massachusetts, home of Nancy Kerrigan, and the victim of a brutal 1994 kneecapping that almost ended her skating career. To those who feel this way­, I can give you a better reason not to see the film: it’s awful.

First, let’s get some Bay State folklore out of the way. Nancy Kerrigan was not the princess she was made out to be after “The Incident,” as the attack on her is usually referenced. Like Harding, Kerrigan was also a blue-collar kid who was rough around the edges and partied hard—she simply “cleaned up” better because she was willing to play by rules laid down by the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA), whereas Harding called “Bullshit!” whenever she perceived it. There was no evidence that Ms. Harding ordered an attack on Kerrigan; the two were ice rivals, but had been friends prior to The Incident. The legal records indicate only that Harding was culpable in “hindering prosecution,” to which she pleaded guilty. In other words, she did not tell investigators that that she had learned that her ex-husband and trainer, Jeff Gillooly, and the man he hired as her bodyguard, loser lowlife Shawn Eckhardt, were responsible for hiring two inept thugs to rattle Kerrigan. Although almost no one now believes it, it’s possible that Harding was also a victim in the entire sordid mess.

What you should believe is that Tonya Harding—played by Margot Robbie—is an abuse victim. She was victimized by poverty, a broken home, and a driven lizard of a mother, LaVona Golden, who’d make Joan Crawford a candidate for Mother of the Year by comparison. Allison Janney plays Golden and she is, by miles, the best thing about the film. She is the creepiest “stage mother” we’ve seen in years, one who only opened her mouth to criticize and made her child daughter redo jump after jump until urine ran down her legs. We watch Golden knock the chair out from under Tonya, slap her, fling abuse by the bucket, and even hurl a knife into Tonya’s arm. Is it any wonder Tonya grew up tough, cynical, and a self-described “redneck?” Her off-ice talents included hunting, mud bogging, engine repair, chain smoking though she has asthma, denying responsibility for most wrongs, and showing contempt for peers who ridiculed her. Nor do you have to Sherlock Holmes to fathom why Harding, who was pulled out of school by her mother, married the first guy who paid attention to her, just to put a little distance between herself and her mother. Unfortunately, that guy was Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), whose affection barely made it through the wedding before he began using Harding as a punching bag. The marriage lasted less than three years (1990-1993).

Harding on ice brings to mind what happened early in Martina Navratilova’s tennis career; she was clearly more athletic than other skaters and did something never before done when, in 1991, she became the first woman ever to land a triple axel in a championship competition. But what if you’re not the “image” demanded by others? Although the film doesn’t mention it, Harding only finished second in an event won by reigning USFSA magic girl Kristi Yamaguchi. Harding was rock and roll, danger, and meat on the bones in a sport that wanted refined, demure, petite beauty queens. Try to catch a break on subjective “artistic” elements when you look like what you are: a redneck with too much makeup stuffed into a tacky costume you sewed yourself.

There is so much this film might have been, but what does it tell you when it was in “Best Comedy” categories for Critics' Choice awards? We have, friends, another sad case of a timid director and hack writers afraid to trust the audience. (Who, exactly, did they imagine that audience to be—mall-going teens?) Instead of following any of the rich dramatic possibilities, we instead get pasteboard characters propped up in a story told mockumentary style. Lost along the way: an analysis of what abuse does to a person, the unspeakable unfairness of the USFSA and other such bodies, the manner in which childhoods are sacrificed upon an altar of sports entertainment fantasy, and—lest we forget—the beginnings of 24/7 TV tabloid trash broadcasting. Let me also call out the ineptitude of Paul Walter Hauser as Eckhardt and my utter amazement that Sebastian Stan gets work. Were it not that Robbie is credible as Harding, Mckenna Grove heartbreaking as Tonya aged 8-12, and Janney amazing as Golden, not even a Zamboni driver would touch this frozen dreck. Why hate on Harding when you can dump on this film instead?

Rob Weir

1 comment:

stacey schmeidel said...

An alternative worth watching: