Everyone loves a Trainwreck! There is something so satisfying in watching someone fail so horrifically, you don’t want to watch but you can’t look away. Everything about the so-called “incident” that I, Tonya features encapsulates a Trainwreck. It has all the hallmarks of a darkly comedic crime thriller; a superstar who’s been counted out before she’s given a chance, an abusive yet loving mother, an abusive husband epitomizing the toxicity of masculinity, an American sweetheart and, of course, a multitude of dim-witted goons. Luckily for the audience, director Craig Gillespie and star Margot Robbie never try to take themselves too seriously, leaning into the hilarity of the events that transpired as much as it works to redeem Tonya Harding.
The film follows Harding’s entire skating life, from the moment she began her first lesson all the way to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. Analysing the complicated relationship she had with her mother, the demented relationship with her husband, but most importantly, her all consuming relationship with the ice. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that skating is the only constant source of enjoyment in Harding’s life, and as such she skates on her own terms desperately seeking a fair shot in a sport seemingly designed for the posh. The only thing stopping her from fully being removed is the fact that she was an amazing skater.
What held me back from fully investing myself in the film was the subject matter and the way that it was handled. To this day, no one knows the full story of what happened to Nancy Kerrigan, we know who did it, but not who orchestrated it. Harding’s role is hazy and at times contradictory. So is it fair to paint her in a sympathetic light that makes you actively root for her, in a way that makes you want her to succeed more than Nancy Kerrigan. I found myself having an internal debate about who was to blame and if I thought the almost glorification that Harding was receiving due to the film was justified. But then again, this is what the film wanted me to do, after all, it presents a series of conflicting interviews painting everyone as a villain at one point or another. By keeping a darkly twisted yet comedic tone the film can get away with its imperfections due to the fact that it is fun and exhilarating.
The editing is spot on, expertly intertwining current day style interviews with the past, having characters break the fourth wall, creating excitement and tension during the skating competitions. It is seamless and never once takes you out of the film in ways that many Scorsese/Goodfellas-esque films do these days. Despite this, the film truly belongs to its stars Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. Janney, one of the best character actresses working today, shines as Harding’s mother, forcing the audience to hate her yet understand the sacrifice she made for her daughter. She is unrecognisable and never once drops character, making such an impact that as her role decreases in the second half, her intensity and presence is sorely missed. However, it is Robbie, who also produced the film, who is the main reason for the film’s success. She is in almost every scene and fully tries to escape into the role, staying consistent on the look, accent and character traits. While it is not the most accurate imitation, she chooses forms a fully realised character and sticks to it, and most definitely earning her Oscar nomination, as well as continued leading roles in the future.
While the Kerrigan scandal is the main sense of conflict for the film and the main draw for audiences, it is what happens around that and the way that each character is given the time to develop that makes the film a step above the average film.