I, Tonya sold during TIFF to distributors Neon and 30West, in a deal said to be $5 million. Lainey thinks that’s low, but it sounds about right to me—the natural effect of the disastrous summer is more cautious spending. Netflix was apparently offering $8 million—I ran across some Netflix buyers and it seems they actually have a budget this time—but the filmmakers, including Margot Robbie, wanted a theatrical release that will play better with Oscar crowds. A late Oscar-qualifying run followed by a platform release designed to peak around the winter Olympics in February is the most obvious strategy. Reaction to the film was mostly positive, based on Margot’s performance, the strongest of her career so far.
I, Tonya is heavy on gimmicks, using not only a documentary format and “irony free” and “wildly contradictory” talking-head interviews—think To Die For—but also breaking the fourth wall, which crosses the documentary format but doesn’t screw up the film. It’s an incredible tonal balancing act, half cinéma vérité, half reality TV confessional, and it’s managed almost perfectly by actors who commit to the premise (devised by screenwriter Steve Rogers, best known for romantic dramas like Hope Floats), and director Craig Gillespie, who is no stranger to odd tones, having directed Lars and the Real Girl. Actors have room to perform, there’s no fancy stuff in the interview segments, and the trickiest camera work is reserved for the ice skating scenes, which required a skating double and digital effects to complete. The narrative portions are approached in a low-key, classic way, which gives I, Tonya the anchor it needs to effectively sell the gimmicks.
But what really powers I, Tonya is class. The heart of I, Tonya is Tonya Harding’s struggle with a sport and a system rooted in a world of privilege that is closed to Tonya, and even when she tries to fit in, it proves indecipherable. Nancy Kerrigan came from a working class background, but her camera-ready blue collar family is a world away from Tonya’s hardscrabble upbringing in Portland, Oregon. Class isn’t just defined as “rich, and everyone else”, and what I, Tonya does so well is show how far the gulf really is between the strata—Tonya is lower class, Nancy is working class, but for all the difference it affords her, Nancy might as well be royalty.
Tonya’s homemade uniforms and the fur coat made out of rabbits her father skinned set her apart from the other girls in the skating world. Her colors are a little too bright and her sequins slightly too many; she likes hard rock and blue nail polish. Her skating is athletic, but she doesn’t have the grace of other skaters, and she yells at judges and curses at the rink. She is not, as one judge tells her, what they want representing their sport and country. Tonya’s famous triple axel forces judges to give her the scores she deserves, but there is a constant strain of dislike aimed at her, even when she’s winning.
And her struggle isn’t just on the ice. I, Tonya delves into Tonya’s personal life, from her relationship with her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney, working on that Oscar), and then her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, disappearing behind a regrettable mustache and soft voice). The film is at its liveliest when cutting between interviews with Tonya, LaVona, and Jeff, all of whom tell different versions of the same events. Whether you believe her or not, the film traces Tonya’s history of abuse and how an abusive home life with LaVona leads to an abusive home life with Jeff, and Tonya herself compares her infamy to abuse. Tonya has a hard life where she has to fight for every scrap and work three times as hard to force her way into world class competition, so by the time “the incident” comes up, it feels like the natural progression of a trapped animal desperately seeking a way out.
I, Tonya does not attempt to definitively answer who knew what, and when, or who is at most fault, though Jeff does admit to “completely ruining” Tonya’s career. The film is most sympathetic to Tonya, but throughout the buildup it is shown how Tonya can never accept responsibility for anything, so it does leave a sliver of doubt about the degree of her innocence. The attack itself is a “World’s Dumbest Criminals” comedy of errors, but the film is more interested in the aftermath, as the FBI investigates while Tonya is preparing for the 1994 Olympics.
But it all comes back to class. Tonya’s story is exploited for tabloids and the burgeoning twenty-four hour news cycle, while Nancy trains in relative privacy, supported by the skating community. A narrative formed, one that cemented Nancy as an ice princess and Tonya as a trashy outsider who brought the tabloid circus to a refined sport like a dog tracking mud into the house. It’s not a question of fairness so much of bias, that the skating world was always against Tonya, and eventually the rest of the world, too. Whether you believe in her innocence or not, I, Tonya makes a case for sympathizing with a young woman who tried to win her way out of poverty, only to fail on the biggest stage in the world.