(2017) Biographical Dramedy (Neon) Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace, Suehyla El-Attar, Jason Davis, Mea Allen, Cory Chapman, Amy Fox, Cara Mantella, Joshua Mikel, Lynne Ashe, Steve Wedan, Brandon O’Dell, Kelly O’Neal. Directed by Craig Gillespie
Fame is a double edged sword. It can give you the keys to the kingdom; everything in life you ever could want. It can also turn back savagely on you and make you a national laughingstock.
Those around in the mid-1990s will remember Tonya Harding (Robbie) as a gifted figure skater who had a legitimate shot at Olympic gold. The first (and to date only) woman to complete a triple axel in competition, it all came crashing down on her just prior to the 1994 Olympics in Norway.
This acid-tongued biopic shows Tonya being pushed into the rink by her overbearing mother LaVona (Janney). Single, bitter and ruthless, LaVona pushes Tonya through physical and emotional abuse, explaining it off as “she skates better angry.” A legitimate athlete, Tonya had a hard time winning judges over with her handmade costumes and her rough-around-the-edges charm.
Tonya moves from one abusive relationship to another; she meets Jeff Gillooly (Stan) at the rink. He falls head over heels for the waif who is something of a combination of Miss America and pro wrestling valet to the working class Gillooly. The two end up marrying but the relationship is tempestuous. He has a vicious temper and that temper gets physical.
She’s desperately lonely and wants to be accepted for what she is – one of the world’s best in her sport. However, her crude language and temperament get the better of her and she continues to place lower than she thinks she deserves. Then, she has that one perfect day – nailing the triple axel and winning the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, making her the odds-on favorite to medal at the Olympics. A combination of bad luck and bad decisions keep getting in her way however, and after separating, then reconciling and at last separating again with Gillooly, she switches coaches and looks to try and make a comeback. Her rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan (Carver) and a death threat that thoroughly plays with Tonya’s head and threatens to derail her chances once again leads Gillooly to conspire with his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Hauser) to do the same to Kerrigan – except the incompetent Eckhardt decides on his own to take it a step further…
The movie is based on a series of face to face interviews with Harding and Gillooly which are often contradictory. The interviews are recreated with Robbie and Stan standing in. The actors also show the events that are being described, often stopping and turning to the camera and addressing the audience to say “I never did this,” or “She actually did this,” or make some other comment. The breaking of the fourth wall is effective and provides some of the best and most comedic moments of the film.
Several critics have groused that the film seems to be using domestic abuse (and there is a lot of it, starkly and graphically portrayed) as a punch line, but that’s quite the knee-jerk reaction in my humble opinion. Perhaps there are some folks who might find that stuff funny but there weren’t any in the screening I attended. The domestic abuse was in stark contrast to the lighter moments of sheer dumbassery displayed by Eckhardt and Gillooly, reflected by some of the more bizarre “you couldn’t make this stuff up” aspects of the actual events.
Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers make it clear their sympathies are with Harding, who was definitely dealt a difficult hand by life. She came from poverty and had to struggle for everything; to her mom’s credit (and you really can’t give her much) she found a way to outfit her with skates and skating lessons which couldn’t have been cheap. However, LaVona does some pretty awful things; she refuses to allow little Tonya a bathroom break until the poor child pees herself on the ice, which only elicits a disgusted expression from Mommy Dearest who will certainly elicit similar expressions from audience members. Class distinctions are a major theme in the film; Harding often acts like trailer trash (to use an awful expression which is to the poor the equivalent of a slur) because that’s all she knows. Still, she wills herself into success and that’s something she is almost never given credit for, mainly because she became tabloid fodder and the butt of late night comedian’s jokes.
Robbie is scary good in the movie, making Tonya hard-assed but also vulnerable. We see the pain in her face when she gives a smile for the cameras but that smile is as tight as saran wrap on her face and threatens to break at any moment. Robbie captures the attitude and vocal patterns of someone from those circumstances and makes Tonya a living, breathing person instead of a media invention.
Janney, who was so good in The West Wing returns to that kind of greatness with a much different role. There is nothing to like about LaVona and Janney gives us a character who is unapologetic and a little bit whacko. We sense that she’s been kicked in the teeth enough but there’s little context; all we see is that life has made her a ten karat bitch and someone who put Tonya on a collision course with infamy.
This is an Oscar contender on a lot of different levels and one of the best movies of the year. It’s just now hitting a limited release and should be going wide shortly. This is one you’ll want to see; even if the Tonya Harding scandal doesn’t interest you, if good filmmaking and incredible acting are more your thing, this movie covers both of those bases with room to spare.
REASONS TO GO: Robbie and Janney both give award-worthy performances. Some excellent camera work, particularly in the skating scenes. The soundtrack is near-perfect. Harding is turned from a joke into a sympathetic character.
REASONS TO STAY: The biting social commentary seems at odds with some of the humor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a scene of shocking violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Janney actually trained as a figure skater through most of her youth until an accident caused a leg injury that effectively ended her career.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Florence Foster Jenkins
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10