Here’s a twist I didn’t see coming this awards season: I, Tonya, a film about the short-lived professional skating career of Tonya Harding that has been billed as a black comedy, is almost as scary as Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
At the very least, I, Tonya is nearly as violent as Get Out, a too-close-to-home horror flick about race in America. Though you may already know this if you watched the news in 1994 and learned about the attack against Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan — orchestrated by Harding’s husband and bodyguard — that injured Kerrigan and interrupted her training for the 1994 Winter Olympics. The film is full of parental abuse that originates in Tonya Harding’s adolescence, carries on into her adulthood, and sets the stage for the domestic violence she endures onscreen by her husband.
And yet, the masses aren’t wrong about I, Tonya: It is, indeed, a boisterous, hilarious film. It’s just also devastatingly sad — an examination of the dynamics of class, gender, and pursuit of the American dream, a combination that has been on everyone’s mind from the 2016 U.S. presidential election to the rise of the #MeToo movement and onward. Here is a film about a sport that pits women against each other to see which of them most appear both meek and wealthy. Here is a film about the danger of basing your self-worth on what you do and don’t accomplish. Here is a film about how a man’s grab for power can quickly ruin a woman’s life.
I, Tonya is vivid, frightening, and timely, and it should be a frontrunner for the Oscar for Best Picture.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case (this is an extremely competitive year in film), so come next week, when the Oscar nominations are revealed, I, Tonya may have to settle for award buzz around the performances of Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, who act as Tonya Harding and LaVona Fay Golden (Tonya Harding’s mother), respectively. Robbie gives an incredibly physical performance as Harding, in a role that should definitely secure her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, if not also make her a serious contender for the golden statuette. Alongside Robbie, the seven-time Primetime Emmy Award winner Allison Janney (of The West Wing and Mom fame) delivers a humorous and scary performance that has already garnered her a Golden Globe and may also lead to her first Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress. Together, these two talented actresses display the toxicity of Harding’s relationship with her mother and reveal what happens when a parent’s desire to turn their child into “a champion” goes too far.
Rounding out I, Tonya’s cast are Sebastian Stan as Harding’s now ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, Julianne Nicholson as Harding’s skating coach, Bobby Cannavale as a producer of the television news program Hard Copy, and Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt, Harding’s bodyguard and a friend of her husband. As a whole, the film’s casting is so great that I’m flummoxed as to why they didn’t receive a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture—almost as much as I’m flummoxed about why more critics aren’t talking about this dynamic film.
But no matter. I, Tonya is a destined classic that even the most casual, mainstream, anti-awards season moviegoer can appreciate. From rural, residential life to news cameras to FBI investigations, I, Tonya is a sweeping view of an America that has barely changed since 1994, and certainly hasn’t improved much. It’s a film about how, in the words of screenwriter Steven Rogers, “America wants someone to love, but they also want someone to hate.”
Funny. We must not know ourselves well enough if we didn’t see that one coming.