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I, Tonya

Year: 2018
Production Co: Clubhouse pictures
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers
Cast: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic

If you only hear about the premise of this film but don't watch any footage or even a trailer, you'd think some screenwriter or director found the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident of the early 90s fascinating enough to want to do a dramatic retelling of it.

And as Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) says in one of the film's fourth wall breaks – as characters talk directly to us about their experiences and recollections years later – she knows as well as we do that we're only there because we were interested in 'the incident'.

I don't know how much of the true story writer Steven Rogers or director Craig Gillespie were interested in portraying, but I knew hardly anything about the incident myself. I always thought Harding herself was the one who attacked Kerrigan so as to end the latter's chances of winning the Olympic event they both qualified for. According to the script for I, Tonya (and which turns out to be the truth), she not only wasn't involved, she didn't even sanction the attack.

But one of the themes of the movie seems to be that despite how a single notorious thing can come to define us in the eyes of history, there's always more to a life than that. In all the footage that exists of her the real Harding seems to be a modern cultural update of Linda Lovelace, a bit of a simpleton who just happend to be caught up in a whirlwind of scandal, fame and fortune and who subsequently did some tacky and dumb things to parley her notoriety into something more permanent and lucrative.

I, Tonya similarly depicts Harding as far from the sharpest tack in the box in the same way. Margot Robbie – a former model from Australia's Gold Coast – transforms herself body, voice and everythig else into a young woman many would call trailer trash but who loved skating (or maybe just thought it was all she could do).

Her acid-tongued mother (Allison Janney) raises Tonya in the style of offence rather than encouragement, forever telling her how useless, ugly and fat she is, apparently trying to make her daughter better not with support but by making her fight to prove she's better than abuse.

Instead she creates a monster, Tonya falling into a destructive and violent relationship with idiot redneck Jeff (Sebastian Stan). They're as poor as churchmouse, routinely beat the shit out of each other and as if Jeff wasn't trouble enough by himself, his friend and Tonya's self-appointed bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) seems borderline autistic, a self-important nerd who lives with his parents even while insisting he's had counter-terrorism training.

It's Shawn who colludes with Jeff to get Nancy put out of the running, although they and Nancy's ultimate assailant-for-hire are all so inpet and clueless about what's going on you could almost say they don't know enough between them to be held responsible.

It's ostensibly the story of Tonya's life surrounding what she did to Kerrigan, but it's about much more and is told with so many interesting and lively forms to tell itself. It's as shocking as it is funny with a Jerry Springer appeal as you feel superior to such bumbling rednecks, but the smarts and care of the people behind it are obvious. The script is great. Gillespie's direction – either when pointing a camera directly at a talking head or wheeling and racing around the ice with Harding like a dance partner – is Scorsese-level good, full of urgent movement and free-wheeling kineticism. And Robbie steals the show as Tonya, making it worth watching for her alone.

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