Starring Margot Robbie. Rated 14A
It takes a while to adjust to the notion of Margot Robbie playing disgraced skater Tonya Harding. In the real world, women who look like the former often get treated differently than the latter. Still, this was a passion project for the Aussie actor, who helped produce I, Tonya and gets a lot of things right.
Crucially, Robbie masters the mousy Harding’s crumpled grimace—a mask made of intense chutzpah doing battle with bottomless self-pity. The roots of this general loathing are pretty well-explained by director Craig Gillespie’s scattershot yet giddily satisfying movie—written by Steven Rogers—which turns out to be a darkly raucous satire rather than the true-crime character study you might expect. It ain’t pretty, but it sure is good.
Poverty, abandonment issues, isolation, and, oh yeah, the worst mother in the world have something to do with Tonya’s troubles. In a performance that could find Lady Bird’s Laurie Metcalfe forced to fight for her supporting-mommy Oscar, Allison Janney provides the biggest laughs as the absurdly named LaVona Golden, a chain-smoking prison guard of a parent who recognizes her daughter’s innate skating talent and absolutely nothing else about the girl. (Young Tonya is played by well-matched Mckenna Grace until Robbie takes over.)
LaVona smacks the kid for the slightest slacking or back talk, until that job is taken over by Tonya’s future husband, Jeff Gillooly (Captain America’s Romanian-born Sebastian Stan). That volatile approach, of course, figures heavily into Tonya’s undoing, with the infamous attack on Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver, glimpsed briefly here), really another party girl but packaged by the press as the apex of middle-class propriety.
Coming in 1994—same year as the O.J. Simpson and JonBenét Ramsey crime capers—the assault was largely ascribed to Gillooly’s pal Shawn Eckhardt (Kingdom’s Paul Walter Hauser), who might be described as The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy if he presented himself as an international counterespionage specialist while still living with his parents.
One curious deficit in the story is the shallow presence of Harding’s main coach (Julianne Nicholson, who played a mom more like LaVona in the nun-centric Novitiate). But if you find the other characters unrealistically cartoonish, stay for the credits and catch the videotaped interviews upon which some scenes are based. They help illuminate the self-serving and plainly contradictory stuff these unreliable witnesses work up for the viewer—sometimes directly, as when Janney turns to the camera and says, “What’s happening to my story line? What. The. Fuck.” Exactly.