Memory is as unreliable as it stubborn, even in the short term. For years after the January 6, 1994 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, I can recall peers in school hallways recreating the assault, faux-victims collapsing to the ground and bellowing, “Why me? Why me?” Kerrigan never said that, though, and while I, Tonya gleefully muddies the waters about many elements of the Kerrigan-Tonya Harding story, it quickly and emphatically sets the record straight on that moment. If the “Why me?” myth helped to consecrate the perceived feud between the two skaters, positioning Kerrigan as the spoiled princess to Harding’s butch, white-trash striver, Kerrigan’s actual reaction—“Why, why, why?”—more faithfully conjures the insane circumstances of the affair, a scheme by nincompoop wannabe henchmen that spun out of control. If Kerrigan and Harding had a feud, it seems to have existed purely on the ice; in hindsight, their story is less about what one skater did to another than about how we, as a country, decided to talk about them.
In depicting Harding’s brief, defiant triumph over poverty, abuse, and the perverse norms that define grace and athletic achievement, director Craig Gillespie’s film goes some distance in correcting the record on the Kerrigan-Harding affair, even as it peddles in speculation and misremembered facts. As a satire of the media and its craven consumers, I, Tonya sprays its moral tirades and stylistic flourishes like buckshot, but after introducing the present-day, faux-documentary conceit that constantly warps and interrupts the proceedings, its narrative begins in the mold of an underdog sports story, with a young Tonya (Mckenna Grace) discovering a love for the ice between days spent chopping wood and reckoning with her parents’ divorce.
Tonya’s mother, LaVona Goldman (Allison Janney), is an acid-tongued, abusive parent with a grim reaper’s countenance who carries a thermos of spiked coffee in one hand and a chain of cigarillos in the other. A rare moment of sentimentality compels her to relent to Tonya’s dreams of figure skating. A teenage Harding (Margot Robbie) sews her own uniforms, makes a coat out of the skins of rabbits she’s shot, and out-jumps the competition; the sport’s notoriously conservative judges feign indifference, even after she begins doing things no American woman has done before on the ice.
These early scenes pointedly juxtapose Harding’s rousing but controversial ascent with the hardships of her life in Oregon, growing up without love or affirmation and with frequent explosions of violence and bitterness. As such, the film depicts Harding’s domestic relationships—first with LaVona and then with her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan)—as an ongoing cycle of spats, barbed comic insults, and flares of abuse. Steven Rogers’s screenplay deftly mines the psychology of this milieu, making it clear that Harding’s potential to transcend her upbringing is perceived as both a threat and an indirect insult to those around her. (Harding visits Gillooly while he’s repairing a car early in their courtship, and she quickly grabs the tools and finishes the job for him.)
Robbie and Stan elicit a surprising amount of pathos from the film’s West Coast redneck environs in spite of Gillespie’s incessant and strangely rudderless needle-drops. On the frequent occasions where Harding (who didn’t finish high school) calls Gillooly stupid or vice versa, it’s clear that the wound stings, giving an edge to a portrait of domestic violence so cyclical it can verge on flippancy. The script decidedly teeters in that direction in moments when Harding, addressing the camera, calls the viewers her abusers.
I, Tonya is on firmer footing when it’s on or near the ice, where Robbie nails the ways in which Harding’s competitive drive dwarf her halting attempts to please her coaches and judges. The sense that her only true joy comes from being the best is infectious, and most dazzlingly rendered in a CG-enabled, ZZ Top-soundtracked, single-shot recreation of the 1991 skate where Harding lands the first triple axel by an American woman in competition. By the time we arrive at “the incident,” the filmmakers are simultaneously mainlining and distorting the scandal’s iconic figures and moments: posing a bloodied Harding over Kerrigan’s (Caitlin Carver) bruised body; imagining a scene of Harding and Kerrigan bonding over pizza, booze, and En Vogue in a hotel room; and introducing “bodyguard” Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and “hitman” Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), the moronic goons who wrenched Harding’s narrative away from her and turned it into tabloid grist.
Only some of these digressions are funny (like the way Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” becomes Stant’s personal soundtrack), but Gillespie mostly lands the film’s tricky tonal balancing act, hitting nostalgic pleasure points throughout even when he’s underlining or undermining the cruelty of Harding’s victimization. His present-day, faux-documentary interviews with the skater (now banned from competitive figure skating and working as a carpenter) are modeled after those in ESPN’s 2014 30 for 30 episode “The Price of Gold.” These scenes represent I, Tonya at its best and worst, making a content, middle-aged Harding seem wounded, masterfully self-aware, and mercilessly cynical about the American public. The film’s habit of courting and then insulting the viewer is a conscious nod to the cycles of abuse that mark Harding’s story, but the filmmakers’ attempts to implicate their audience are I, Tonya’s broken shoelace, too pat and glib to be convincing.