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I, Tonya (2017); And a Superb Screenplay That Got Snubbed

January 24, 2018

With Oscar nominations in, I’m surprised that for once I’m not completely put off by what the Academy has deemed “award worthy” this year. The lack of snubs are relatively few and far between but there was one snub this year that shocked and disappointed me, and that’s Steven Roger’s glorious screenplay for I, Tonya going unrecognized. But hey, you can’t please everyone. I can’t seem to get I, Tonya off my mind since seeing it last weekend. It was a striking movie-going experience that completely smashed my expectations of what a film of its type could be. Initially I was trepid going into it. Did I really need to see the story of person that potentially had something to do with a career-defining attack on an opponent for personal glory? Why should she have a story about her life when Nancy Kerrigan doesn’t? I’m supposed to have sympathy for Tonya because she was poor and troubled? I, Tonya addresses these interrogations with a resounding “well, yeah.”

I, Tonya doesn’t glorify Harding nor does it make you feel sorry for her, at least that’s not the intention of the text at hand. Instead it empathizes with the former figure skating champion. Through a mockumentary style of storytelling, it gives her and her former husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a chance to tell their side of a complicated story, something that didn’t happen during the sensationalized incident and subsequent trial. Harding never had a chance to be American’s sweetheart or a respected champion despite her talent and the hard work she underwent to overcome poverty and years of abuse to achieve in her field. Most of Harding’s decline was due to her personal life spiraling out of control and the fact that her “white trash” persona didn’t vibe well with judges.

For as far back as I can remember, Harding has always been guilty for the attack on Kerrigan in 1994. I grew up during the wall to wall coverage of the case and remember Harding constantly being the butt of SNL skits, late night segments and reality television. I even remember her attempted comeback as a women’s boxer years later. Since those days my reaction to Harding has been one filled with callous indifference much like most of the country. She was a joke. And why shouldn’t she be? She was responsible for, if not aware of, the attack on Kerrigan. A character in the film sums this assumption up pretty perfectly when he stats that if you let some people tell it, Harding was right there bashing Kerrigan’s knee in herself on that fateful day over 20 years ago.

While it’s a little too on the nose at times, Roger’s screenplay serves as a reminder of how heavily influential the media coverage on Harding indicted her before she was ever put on trial. The film’s intention isn’t to say that Harding was completely innocent, on the contrary, it highlights her inconsistent stories, vulgarity and her own self-destructive behavior. It also merely reiterates that no one knows 100% what she did or didn’t know except those involved. Harding wasn’t found guilty of committing the crime. Her guilty verdict was for conspiring to hinder the prosecution itself. Regardless, I, Tonya doesn’t seek to portray her as an innocent bystander but it does indict the American public for continuously eating up sensationalist bullshit slopped on our plates without ever thinking to ask what it’s made it.

Roger’s script is a marvelous piece of dark comedy that presents the topic at hand with unmitigated levity, so much so that it reminded me of a pre-code film from the early 1930s, in which you’re shocked that you’re laughing at the brutality of human behavior. Robbie is a knockout as Harding and presents the figure skating icon in a sympathetic light without selling us an image of a “good girl.” Harding made poor decisions in her life and found herself clawing up for air when those decisions proved to hold too much weight. Robbie perfectly captures these character flaws while the script reminds us of Harding’s age and the influences around her, like her abusive mother and husband.

Robbie slides delicately between meek vulnerability and fierce gruffness. The screenplay gives Robbie her moment to shine as an actress and she rises to the occasion. But it’s the ensemble cast that truly makes this film as gripping and entertaining as it is. Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s “bodyguard” Shawn completely steal the show by mastering the complex dynamics in their characters through natural performances that truly sell the incredulous sequence of event that unfold. Janney delivers one of the better performances of her career as Harding’s hard-nosed, abusive mother LaVona, who justifies her behavior by convincing herself that her brutality is out of care for her daughter. Janney is so good that it’s believable.

What struck me the about I, Tonya is how it conjures up thoughts of all of the other poor schmucks whose faces and names become staples on 24-hour news cycles until the next story takes hold and pushes it off. While the world moves on to the next case or hot story, the real-life person who has just been dragged around piece by piece must figure out how to navigate their life in a society that has now deemed them “undesirable” despite what the court of law has ruled. The most poignant scene that drives this point home come when Jeff explains how one day the media just left like it was all a bad dream after being camped on his front lawn for weeks. We watch as he crosses to his window to see a silent front yard and single news van packing up its last bit of equipment before driving off, while his television shows O.J. Simpson being surrounded by cameras the day after the death of Nicole. It’s funny how we detach a person’s humanity from them once they’ve become a staple in the media. And when I say funny I mean fucked up. Some people may watch this film and not see the importance of it under the veil of its straightforward plot, but I thoroughly enjoyed I, Tonya. In fact, I think it’s one of my favorite films of 2017.


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