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November 12, 2017

Denver Film Festival - I, Tonya

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Craig Gillespie - 2017

The last few minutes of I, Tonya are jarring when footage of the real Tonya Harding is seen just after Margot Robbie's impersonation. Someone like Kate Mara or Ellen Page may have been physically closer to Harding. And Robbie doesn't quite convince as a teen Tanya Harding, going on chaperoned dates under the severely watchful eye of her mother. As one who watched the Winter Olympics in the Nineties, and casually followed Harding's career prior to "the incident" as it is referred to in the film, Robbie's casting may be the only questionable part of I, Tonya more for her physical presence than for the performance itself, which is quite watchable.

While the film follows Harding's life from an extremely able four year old pushed into competitive skating by her cold, and frequently abusive mother, to her life after being banned from the sport, Gillespie's film also takes a look at media and celebrity, as well as the politics of figure skating. An adjective about her background I recall from reading about Harding when she was making the news was hardscrabble. Athletic ability was never enough. Harding was not cute like Kristi Yamaguchi, nor had the refined WASP looks of Nancy Kerrigan. The film situates Tonya Harding as someone trying to validate herself through her ability on the ice, only to be undermined on all sides.

The screenplay claims to be based on the interviews with the actual people in the the story. What is certain is that most of these people were not very bright, and growing up in a dysfunctional household (to say the least) did Tonya Harding no favors. The humor, and there is lots of it, is caustic. The fourth wall is broken with several asides by the characters, while not overdoing the gimmick. The film is clearly on Harding's side, even if cautions the audience that they are watching her version of the truth.

Don't be surprised if Allison Janney gets an Oscar nomination as the mother from Hell. I'm usually not one to get into the prediction business, but Janney grabs attention with her sarcasm, insults and just plain nastiness towards everyone within spitting distance. The always reliable Bobby Cannavale is also quite funny as the unnamed producer of the tabloid news show, Hard Copy. Visually, Gillespie likes to make use of some very long traveling shots, the most spectacular being of Harding leaving the home she shared with ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. CGI is also used to seamlessly make it appear that it is Robbie performing the triple axel when not speeding and spinning across the ice.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 12, 2017 09:42 AM