TORONTO — How many of you, when you heard that there was a new Tonya Harding biopic in the works, responded with a silently mocking “Why? Why? Whyyyyyy?”
Was there any compelling reason to revisit the sordid tale of a washed-up figure skater turned national joke and celebrity boxer? Could we have predicted the sharp, snarling, pitch-perfect “I, Tonya” that is now emerging as maybe the most unlikely critical darling in the history of the Toronto International Film Festival?
Well yes, actually — because Craig Gillespie also directed 2007’s irresistible “Lars and the Real Girl,” about a man in love with a blow-up doll, and because people have been underestimating Tonya Harding all her life.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Harding became a household name in the 1990s not because she won the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championship and was the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition, but because she’s associated with one of the oddest moments in sports: when Stoneham native Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s main rival, was clubbed in the knee after a skating practice at the 1994 nationals and Harding’s inner circle was suspected of having orchestrated the attack.
“I, Tonya” doesn’t just bathe in the dingy washbucket of Harding’s proudly redneck (her word, not ours) everyday life in Oregon, it smartly balances satire and camp with proper appreciation for the lost souls who rarely get a fair shake in these kinds of stories. Maybe they’re all boobs, as one tabloid TV reporter (Bobby Cannavale) puts it, but you do feel for them.
That includes Tonya herself (Margot Robbie nails every facet of the pitbull who thinks she’s best in show); her snarky, ice-cold mother (the brilliant Allison Janney); and the volatile, violent, mustachioed Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who ends up marrying and managing the skater. The hilarious screenplay by Steven Rogers (“Love the Coopers,” 2015) dodges lingering questions of criminal culpability with an upfront acknowledgment of its “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true” story.
Anyway, abusers aren’t limited to the ones who leave visible wounds. Gillespie’s film takes on the figure skating establishment and society as a whole, challenging our notions of what constitutes wholesome entertainment and acceptable behavior, as well as who’s worth saving and investing in. The people who get to be on the Wheaties box aren’t always the best at their sport; sometimes they’re just the best at selling us Wheaties.
As for Kerrigan, she’s barely visible but consistently fair game in this unsparing comedy. Harding compares the infamous kneecapping incident to all that she’s endured and rolls her eyes. “Nancy gets hit one time and the whole world [expletive],” she says. “For me it’s an everyday occurrence.”
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