“I, Tonya,” 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.
It’s parenting as a form of barely repressed competition and vengeance, yet LaVona, a mentally warped stage mother, shapes Tonya in one defining way. Figure skating, as a kind of athletic finishing school for girls, is designed to be a princess contest — it’s not just about skating, it’s about projecting an image that goes back to the “good girl” tropes of the ’40s and ’50s. LaVona has a pathology about not fitting in. She doesn’t want to pay for upscale frilly costumes, but really, she’s too much of a poison pill to play by the rules that others set; she’d rather set herself, and her daughter, apart. It’s a projection of her misanthropy, but the result is that Tonya, an only child who likes trucks and chopping wood, grows up to be a heavy-metal figure skater from white-trash hell.
When Robbie takes over the role, she looks a little sleeker than the real Tonya Harding, who has a scrunchy neurotic grin, but she nails Tonya’s skittery insecurity, and the freedom she feels on the ice. Robbie did portions of her own skating, and the scenes are thrillingly staged and shot. In one, Tonya comes out in a purple costume with a white swirl that looks like something off a customized sports car, and she’s her own thing — a badass rock ‘n’ roll sprite. Her grand feat, of course, is the triple axel: an awesomely extended spin through the air that she was the first American figure skater to bring off at an international event. When she’s up there, she’s flying — she transcends her identity as an outsider/victim.
Part of the film’s drama — almost its morality — is that Tonya, though a highly successful skater who starts to compete in national championships, gets lower scores than she deserves, and the judges, at several points, come out and admit that it’s about factors besides skating — what they call “presentation.” But that’s just code for conventionality, for wanting to sell a homogenized image of America on the Olympic level. It has nothing to do with what any of this is supposed to be about — skating — and that lends Tonya a streak of rebel realness.
That’s the good side of her contempt for respectability. The bad side is that she falls for Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a loser in a sardine mustache who’s nice enough to Tonya — when he isn’t punching her in the face. Their relationship isn’t portrayed as one of those hellacious ones in which the abuser keeps the abused under his thumb by threatening her. Sebastian Stan makes Jeff a bumpkin with a mean streak, and Tonya, no matter how much she gets slapped around, simply won’t cut him loose; she marries him, and leaves him, and keeps coming back. The movie is sharp enough to suggest that she feels the echo of her mother’s hatred in every slap, and she can’t give that up. She’s addicted to what she thinks she deserves.
The director, Craig Gillespie, made “Lars and the Real Girl” (which I despised), but here, working from a script by Steven Rogers, he works in quick blithe scenes that sketch in a community, from Tonya’s soft-hearted figure-skating teacher, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), to Jeff’s pal Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), a pop conspiracy theorist who is so gently out-to-lunch that you can hear him, in his stoned conversation, pioneering the rudiments of fake-news culture. As the Olympics approach, it’s Shawn who Jeff taps for a scheme to send letters to Nancy Kerrigan in order to intimidate her. When the orders are passed to someone even lower down on the boob chain, it comes out as: Whack Nancy in the knee! There’s no larger meaning to what the film calls “the incident.” It just…happens.
Tonya Harding had almost nothing to do with it, yet the attack on Nancy Kerrigan played out, on the global media stage, as an explosion of her festering class resentment and insecurity, which was all too real. And she paid the price. She had much more than 15 minutes of infamy. She saw her life reduced to a punchline, and once the whole thing went through the courts, she was banned from competitive skating forever. (I doubt that’s even legal: It’s just…vengeful.) In one of the most piquant moments of “I, Tonya,” Tonya sits in the kitchen during her present-day interview and confesses that she grew up being abused, then found an abusive husband, then found the ultimate abusers: all of us. She became our punching bag. But “I, Tonya” returns her to being what she always was: a great skater, and a human being with a dream of downscale flash that wouldn’t quit until it was pried away from her by the world.