author: shelbi glover | a&c writer
Reviewing a possible Oscar nomination.
The year is 1994. Bill Clinton is still president. Your neon pink and purple windbreaker is currently in the washing machine. Most importantly, though, the winter Olympics are quickly approaching and, with it, rising star Tonya Harding is looking to make a name for herself in the suffocating figure skating world. There’s only one problem, though: on January 6, Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s rival, is attacked at the National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.
“Attacked” might not be a strong enough word. “Bludgeoned in the kneecap with a police baton” is more like it.
Naturally, the girl-hating media of the ‘90’s and the general social climate led everyone to blame Tonya Harding for the attack; and, Harding, with neither family nor friends, became a figure skating pariah after she was banned from competing for life. After over 20 years of living in the shadows of notoriety, the story is finally being told from her perspective, and it paints a nearly unimaginable tragedy.
Starring Margot Robbie as Harding herself, Craig Gillespie’s award-winning film I, Tonya chronicles the defamed skater’s life from the ugly beginnings until Kerrigan’s attack, which is referred to in the film as “the f*cking incident.” From the get-go, a black screen with white lettering informs us that everything we are about to see is based on “100% true interviews” with Tonya Harding, her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her caustic mother, LaVonna Harding (Allison Janney).
As portrayed in the film, Tonya grew up poor; her father left when she was a child, and LaVonna worked full time as a waitress to support her skating career. At LaVonna’s demands, Tonya dropped out of school at 15 in order to pursue skating further; but it’s not by any means a supportive home. LaVonna constantly criticizes her daughter: “You skated like a graceless bull dyke. I was embarrassed for you,” she says after one of Tonya’s performances and, at one point, throws a steak knife at her – although LaVonna now claims that never happened.
Tonya soon moved out of her mother’s house and married Jeff Gillooly, who was truly no better. Gillooly was even more violent, with an explosive temper and habit for hitting Tonya for next to no reason. “I got up in the morning, I got hit,” Robbie’s Harding explains in a voiceover. “I took a shit, I got hit.” Meanwhile, Tonya is still only trying to do what she knows best: skate, and make the Olympic team.
But we all know what happens next: Jeff Gillooly hires someone to threaten Nancy Kerrigan (unbeknownst to Tonya), and everything goes awry.
Margot Robbie’s performance is undeniably compelling; every single line she delivers is raw, and several of them left me shaken. “It was like being abused all over again,” she recounts at one point, staring at the camera in a way that is both exhausted and furious all at once. “Except this time, it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers, too.”
I, Tonya is nothing short of beautiful, but it lacks a fairytale ending; it’s like a breath of fresh air, but we’re not allowed to exhale. Although Tonya Harding is finally getting the recognition she deserves as both a talented figure skater and an abuse victim, her life has been forever tainted by the terrible actions of those closest to her, the media who demonized her for years, and the sport that refused to give her a chance.
There’s no way to right any of those wrongs, but now that the true story is out there, it’s imperative that we never stop telling it.