“Sharp Edges” (as in blades) is the perfect title for a documentary about Tonya Harding. But who would have had the prescience to think of that title a decade before her infamy? Last year, when “I, Tonya” came out, there were those (like me) who flipped for it, and those who didn’t. The appearance this week of “Sharp Edges,” a documentary about Harding made in 1986, eight years before the incident that made her famous, isn’t likely to change minds in either camp. Yet as an “I, Tonya” believer, I watched this fascinating found object of a movie, directed by Sandra Luckow as her senior-thesis project at Yale, eager to see if it supported or undercut the vision of Tonya Harding and her demons put forth by Craig Gillespie’s audacious awards-bait docudrama. What it reveals, to me, is how close to the truth of Harding’s life “I, Tonya” really came.
The documentary, which is getting a one-week theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles starting July 6 (after which it will be available on streaming services), is only 48 minutes long, and it’s shot on VHS, which gives it a slightly sludgy live-action period look that now seems completely exotic. “Sharp Edges” is desultory at moments, but it’s also inquiring. We hang out with Tonya, who was just 15 at the time, and the movie wants to know what makes her tick — what she desires and what she’s up against.
Even as a teenager, Tonya already looks the part of who she became. (She looks it in her toddler pictures.) With her raccoon mascara and junk-food pallor, her frosted short hair and a smile that’s shaped like a debauched pair of butterfly wings, she has a surly mall-chick defiance that’s very 1980s — at times, she could almost be auditioning to be a member of the Runaways. One look at her and the film’s theme is announced: This is a terrific figure skater, maybe a sublime one, who is not a happy camper. There’s an arresting element of androgyny to Harding’s appearance; she’s pretty as hell but possesses a boyish scowl, like Princess Diana with a touch of Tom Sawyer. That bad girl-meets-bad boy pout is the trademark of her angry, questing, unsettled nature.
We’re never told how the filmmaker stumbled onto her subject, but, amazingly, Luckow embraces the idea — it’s the whole premise of the movie, really — that Tonya was destined for athletic stardom. At 15, she can already do a triple axel (called a “triple jump” here), which sets her rivetingly apart, and just as important she has the charisma of the dispossessed. “I don’t mind being the underdog,” declares Tonya, “because once I skate and do my best, they’ll know who I am.” Them’s fightin’ words.
Her family, in a word, is trash — not because of their class, but because they’re a dysfunctional clan of petty crooks and scuzzbucket lost souls: the brother she describes as a thief, who gets into drunken brawls (“I don’t do that!” she snaps, a comment that’s pointed enough to make it sound like it could be an option), or the sister who ran away when she was 13 and became a streetwalker.
And then, of course, there’s LaVona.
Was Allison Janney’s Oscar-winning performance over-the-top, as a handful of detractors claimed? It turns out that she studied footage from this film (as the creators of “I, Tonya” did — that may be why they chose to make it a mock documentary), and if you watch “Sharp Edges” it’s clear that she got eerily close to the real thing.
The LaVona we see here is a brittle eccentric who sits in a fur coat, a parakeet on her shoulder, her hair in severe bangs that look like the bowl cut worn by Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. Her tone is harsh and bitter, dry and defensive, and there isn’t a word out of her mouth that’s not uttered with angry certitude. She says that Tonya eats, breathes, and sleeps skating, but that “The bigger the ‘You can’t do it,’ the better and the best she’ll do it.” Luckow then asks: What if you didn’t challenge her with obstacles? LaVona replies, “She’d be nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Maybe she’s right, yet this seems to be her way of saying that Tonya, deep down, really is nothing. Tonya says of her mother, “She hits me, and she beats me, and she drinks…Everything she does, she takes it out on me.” The weird thing is, she says it as if that’s a normal state of affairs.
Tonya’s coach, Diane Rawlinson (played by Julianne Nicholson in “I, Tonya”), explains that training to be a figure skater is outrageously expensive: the clothes, the choreography, the rink time. Dorothy Hamill, who is mentioned several times as an obvious role model for Tonya, spent $35,000 a year when she was training in the mid-’70s. (That’s the equivalent of $150,000 today.) Tonya, when she was just five, was talented enough to win a pair of sponsors who saw her potential, but they cut out after witnessing LaVona’s behavior at competitions — specifically, when they saw her beating Tonya with a hairbrush.
Watching “Sharp Edges,” I understood more deeply why “I, Tonya” turned into a black comedy of lower-middle-class insanity and rage. The shabby meanness of Harding’s background is a deadly serious thing, but in “Sharp Edges,” as you listen to the pile-up of depraved dysfunction, in contrast to the aspirational bubbliness of those trying to lift Tonya out of the gutter (her coach’s phrase), it does start to sound funny. It’s like a wrestling match between Tonya and the heartland dementia that threatens, at every turn, to drag her down.
Yet Tonya herself isn’t a comic figure. She’s a vulnerable human being with star quality — a true athlete–artist, one who wears her attitude as armor. At the 1986 USA National Figure Skating Championships in Nassau County, New York, we see, backstage, the other skaters, one of whom has hair just like Tonya’s, but her face is serene, whereas Tonya always looks like she’s about to cry. She goes out shopping with Rawlinson and her choreographer, Vicki Mills, who says, “We need to class up your act.” Tonya tries on an elegant long black dress, and we see her discomfort in it. It may not be “her,” but it’s also that she doesn’t believe in herself enough to support an unironic princess look.
On the ice, however, she rules. Her biggest disadvantage in competition — and probably the biggest distortion of “I, Tonya” — is her height. Harding is a compact 5’1″, compared to Nancy Kerrigan, Dorothy Hamill, or Peggy Fleming, who are all 5’4”. Margot Robbie, who played her so brilliantly in “I, Tonya,” is 5’6”. The real Harding stands less sylphlike, less like a glorious swan. Yet at the Nassau competition, in a green sequin dress that looks marvelous on her, she gives a startling performance: poised, daring, virtuosic, and, in its way, regal. She comes in fifth out of seventeen, then phones her mother, who according to Tonya says, “You did terrible, you know that? You sucked!” “Sharp Edges” is a curio that reveals what a very thin blade there is between comedy and tragedy.