David Gillespie, director (The Finest Hours) and Steven Rogers, screenwriter, of I, Tonya, look hard at class in America, specifically our attitudes toward the working poor. These people, comprising perhaps two thirds of all Americans, live paycheck to paycheck when they work at all and often work several badly paying jobs, just to stay afloat. For many, the situation is depressing and increasingly complicated by issues of addiction and incarceration. Marriages founder, children suffer and the problems persist from generation to generation. What’s more, as we know, the gap between blue collar workers and knowledge workers is huge and growing. These people aren’t so much “ deplorable”, as desperate, lacking both opportunity and choices. Much of American life divides along class lines, none more than competitive ice skating, an almost exclusively upper-middle-class sport. So in 1994, when the explosive accusation that Tonya Harding, a very accomplished skater from a blue-collar family, had ordered the attempted maiming of her principal rival, Nancy Kerrigan, it was headline news in the tabloids and the mainstream press. The story was a train wreck of events and characters. It seemed to confirm everyone’s view of Harding as “trailer trash.”
Gillespie and Rogers take this American tragedy and fashion a darkly comedic, faux documentary, poignant, with enormous energy that transcends reality. But whose reality? Often the accounts of each event are contradictory. Tonya at one point says “There is no truth; everyone has their own truth”. And is that ever true in this film. I, Tonya begins with Harding as a little girl, literally pushed onto the ice by her monster mother, LaVona, easily one of the worst mothers ever. The film shows us Harding’s hard-scrabble backstory; particularly her mother – abusive, withholding, foul-mouthed, constantly smoking and determined that her daughter would become a great skater. That Tonya did so was more in spite of than because of her mother’s efforts. LaVona worked as a waitress and never let Tonya forget that her sweat paid for skating lessons. She recognized her daughter’s unusual talent and encouraged her with such advice as never to befriend other skaters because they are the enemy. Although Tonya’s father was a loving parent and taught her to hunt, he left early to escape a marriage that must have been torture. In a heart breaking scene, he drives away with Tonya standing in front of the car, pleading for him to stay.
Tonya’s husband, Jeff Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan), was abusive, feckless and a skilled liar. He is testimony to Tonya’s desperate desire for love and the bad choices that flowed from that desperation. LaVona’s concise take on the subject: “Fuck dumb; marry smart”. Alas, she didn’t. Harding’s would-be bodyguard is Shawn Eckhardt, well played by Paul Walter Hauser, a friend of her husband and a sad overweight guy living in his mother’s basement. Despite billing himself as an “international terrorist expert”, he couldn’t protect Tonya from an enraged hamster. It was Eckhardt’s idea to hire a pair of low-lifes to hurt Nancy Kerrigan, so she couldn’t compete against Tonya. Of course no one connected with this harebrained scheme ever agrees, each blaming the other guy for what went so badly awry. The film sides with Harding in her insistence that she had no idea that anyone would hurt her rival. Yet a court found otherwise and barred Tonya Harding from competitive figure skating for life.
Gillespie has his characters break the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience. A scene will unfold, when suddenly one character will interject that what we’ve just seen wasn’t what actually happened. Doing this repeatedly adds considerably to the documentary-like aspect of the film. The skating scenes are mesmerizing; Tonya’s triple axels are astonishing. The soundtrack is outstanding with an epic array of pop hits from the 80’s, especially Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet. The ensemble cast is marvelous. Both Margot Robbie, as Tonya, and Allison Janney, as LaVona, give the performances of a lifetime and will surely be Oscar contenders, as should the film itself. I loved I, Tonya, and grew to love Tonya herself. With more grit and courage than a dozen ordinary people, she impressed me as much more decent than I’d ever imagined when I first walked into the theater. I did feel guilty, however, enjoying so much of the characters’ antics, which although hilarious, were born of desperation. The director hews dangerously close to the line of zero-compassion, without crossing over. I know I always push for a big-screen viewing, but really, you’ll be sorry if you miss I, Tonya in the theater. Running time: 119 minutes. Playing at the Embarcadero, the Alamo Drafthouse, the AMC Bay Street (Emeryville) and the CineArts Santana Row (San Jose). Ciao, Ian