Early this year we had The Disaster Artist, which added a dimension of humanity to the perpetual joke that was Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. This weekend Neon pictures (The Bad Batch, Ingrid Goes West) released I, Tonya which added to the emerging trend of creative, unique filmmakers adding a new dimension of humanity to pop culture punchlines. Craig Gillespie’s biopic is rife with the kind of artistic license that made The Disaster Artist and Wolf of Wall Street stand out amongst its more straight-laced contemporaries while still giving the back of its hand to its own audience.
Synopsis: “Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.”
Star (and executive producer) Margot Robbie portrays Harding with a sense of youthful complexity and exuberance that immediately puts the audience in the corner of this scrappy underdog (both in skating and in life). Harding admits to camera that she’s a “redneck” which put her at a disadvantage in the snobby, high society world of competitive figure skating. Though her skills eclipsed her peers, judges routinely gave her lower marks because she didn’t have the right pedigree for the sport. For a character whose entire life was figure skating, it is an especially crushing blow to be told, “you’ve got the skill, but you as a person just aren’t good enough.” That, along with her mother’s (Allison Janney) withholding and abusive “maternal instincts” and her impetuous marriage to Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Shaw) all fed into what would become one the first and most popular examples of pop-culture schadenfreude to enter into the modern news cycle.
The entire cast delivers in that ‘truth is truly stranger than fiction’ way that biopics often miss out on when trying to be as accurate as possible (though the post-credit footage shows you just how accurate the portrayals actually were), but Robbie is a god-damned powerhouse of raw emotion as Harding. She captures the earnest and naive outlook that a 23 year old, high school drop out who lived to skate and was deprived from a personal life by her mother. Similar to James Pope in Brigsby Bear, her portrayal of Harding outside of her mother’s control is almost like someone who has been kept in a bunker all her life and been exposed to the real world for the first time. She’s naive and completely out of her depth when it comes to navigating the media scrutiny she ultimately finds herself in (though that doesn’t stop a litany of reporters and audiences from laughing at her misfortune).
Visually the film is told in a very un-polished, down ‘n dirty style of cinematography (except for the skating sequences, which looked poetic) that will remind many of Scrosese or David O Russel. While this style could be misinterpreted as being a budgetary issue, the shooting style actually matches the overall tone and feel of the film’s story. Harding isn’t some prim and proper beauty queen or an idealized figure that a Spielberg or Stone can impeccably capture with sterile precision. Her story is a rough and tumble journey into a raw, unpolished world full of grit and grime. Where movies like Lincoln retained the restrained respectability of a high class nod of the head, I Tonya is a middle finger to the world and is shot accordingly.
What makes I, Tonya hit like a gut punch to the audience is the sobering realization that while Harding may not be a perfect person by any stretch of the imagination, our own giddy joy at her misfortune and how quickly we wrote her (and those like her) off as society’s newest punchline of the week shows how we as viewers are all part and parcel to the heartless, cold, dehumanizing world of “tabloid journalism” which is now, more than ever, the vast majority of what is seen online and on TV.
Aside from all that, it is a rock n’ roll story that eschews conventional biopic standards. Just like Robbie’s portrayal of Harding, it may not be the norm for the genre, but damn is it impressive to watch.
Check out I, Tonya playing in theaters now and then let us know what you thought on Twitter @Official_FAN