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‘I, Tonya’ turns disgraced figure skater’s story into winning feature

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Preston Barta

I, Tonya 

Rated R, 119 minutes.

Opens Friday in select theaters in Dallas.

3.5 of 5 stars

Just in case you don’t know who Tonya Harding is, or forgot (because it’s been over 20 years since her name appeared in the tabloids), she was the shamed figure skater whose desperate need to succeed got the best of her in the '90s. In short, Harding gained great infamy outside her sport for her role in the knee-bashing attack on her rival, Nancy Kerrigan.

I, Tonya is not a traditional biopic. You may have learned this from its cutting-edge trailer, where it captures a tone that resembles what many might imagine a Deadpool or Martin Scorsese movie would look like if it took place on the ice. It has a mockumentary style that often breaks the fourth wall to converse with its audience.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) and director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) include the expected rise-and-fall story of Harding (played with fierce determination by Margot Robbie), but they also splice in direct-to-camera interviews to add a greater emotional and comical depth.

Take for instance one moment when we see Harding being thrown against the wall by her husband, Jeff Gillooly (a mustached Sebastian Stan of Captain America fame), while Robbie narrates, “He was the only boy I ever loved. The only catch was, he beat the living hell out of me.” We then cut to an older Gillooly being interviewed, when he states, “I never hit her.” (“I did naht!," as Tommy Wiseau would say.)

Gillespie and Rogers are obviously keen on the idea of truth being a matter of perspective. They even have Harding say a line like, “There’s no such thing as truth. Everyone has his or her own truth.” The filmmakers could have easily told the story strictly from Harding’s point of view — and for the most part, they do, because this is her story — but the film plays around with different angles to raise the stakes and have the film figuratively skate outside the box.

Robbie and the filmmakers paint Harding as a sympathetic character, and some may question why that is, given what happens by the end of the film. The truth, or what we can assume is the truth, is she suffered physical and psychological abuse from the people who mattered most in her life, primarily her mother (a cold-as-ice Allison Janney). Harding becomes a victim of circumstance. She’s extremely talented, but held back by her unconventional upbringing and the outside factors that were beyond her control.

I, Tonya is by no means perfect. Its overwhelmingly kinetic energy and constant wall-breaking can irritate at times. However, it still manages to land a few triple axels of its own by being a highly entertaining biopic with captivating performances.

FEATURED IMAGE: Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in a scene from I, Tonya. Robbie says she really wants to tie on skates and get back on the ice over the Christmas holiday. She learned to ice skate for her role as figure skater Tonya Harding but her contracts on three other films have prevented her from getting back on the blades. Photo courtesy of Neon.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.