My sister and I loved watching figure skaters when we were little, mesmerized by the way they moved weightlessly across the ice. If someone told me to imagine a championship figure skater, I would probably envision a waify, frosty ballerina-type. With a dark, shimmering leotard and every hair tucked away meticulously.
But Tonya Harding defies that description for sure. Her costumes were garish and brightly colored, often home-made by her mother. Her skating was powerful and punchy, more reminiscent of a teen at the roller rink than a pristine ballerina.
According to Craig Gillespie’s (Lars and the Real Girl) new movie I, Tonya, Tonya Harding “was totally American.” She grew up “white trash,” which certain characters spit at her occasionally. Her divorceé mother waited tables to pay for skating lessons, and Tonya dropped out of high school to focus on her training. Yet, in true underdog fashion, she rose through the ranks to become one of the best skaters in the world. But her rise to fame didn’t prevent her universe from crashing down around her in spectacular fashion.
Honestly, I want to say just two things about this movie. Because if you remember the Harding media frenzy of the early 90’s, you already know the major plot points here – and if you’re a younger viewer, it will be fun to stay spoiler-free if you can, because this is a wild ride.
First, this is a refreshingly tight, well-put-together movie. It easily earns high scores across categories: the music is infectious, the direction is high-energy (reminiscent of a Coen-brothers romp), and the cast is all-star caliber. Allison Janney (The Girl on the Train), Sebastian Stan (Logan Lucky), Paul Walter Hauser (Virginia), and especially Margot Robbie (Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot) as Tonya deliver larger-than-life performances to fit their larger-than-life characters. They are beautiful and terrible, crass and tender, and breathe so much life into this story.
The second amazing thing I want to say about I, Tonya is a little harder to explain, but here goes:
On the surface, it sells itself as a “he said, she said.” The opening titles sardonically state the script is “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” And the characters do break the fourth wall, documentary-style, to give their own take on what really happened.
“They remember nothing the same,” screenwriter Steven Rogers (Kate & Leopold) shares in this Huffington Post story. “They’re all rebels, but they’re also kind of wrongheaded. I wanted the script to reflect that.”
Yet, watching this movie, I found myself sitting squarely in Tonya’s corner. Her ex-husband Jeff might claim to the camera to be a “meek” man, but we see him smashing Tonya into walls. We hear her mother LaVona downplaying the abuse in their home, but we see a very different story. Over and over again, Rogers and Gillespie let Tonya’s perspective control the visual narrative – a subtle but powerful choice.
Certain critics are saying that I, Tonya pounds an already-downtrodden woman even further into the ground, or that its comedic elements are disrespectful of the tragic events that took place during her years in the spotlight. But I see it so differently.
The U.S. is in a moment of crisis right now, where we seem to be finally deciding whether we believe women. Men in power – from Hollywood celebrities to the President – are being called to account for reprehensible, sexist behavior. Will we continue to let women carry crushing losses, while the men who hurt them escape any kind of serious consequences?
Tonya Harding reminds us all how far society still has to go in treating women with humanity and equity. But she’s also an icon of glorious woman bad-assery and achievement. American folk singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens might have penned the perfect fan-letter, which he released in his song “Tonya Harding, My Star” the week of the movie’s release. The final two stanzas make me want to stand up and cheer.
“Tonya Harding, my friend
Well this world is a bitch, girl
Don’t end up in a ditch, girl
I’ll be watching you close to the end.
So fight on as you are
My American princess
May God bless you with incense
You’re my shining American star.”