by: Maggie Sachson
The case for Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya as one of the best films of 2017, a film powered by nostalgia which offers a measure of redemption for an all-too loathed public figure…
Having come of age in the 1990s, I remain fascinated by the fashion, art, music, and films produced in the era. Thinking back, I marvel at my questionable fashion choices, which included scrunchies in every color, clunky Steve Maddens, short plaid skirts (think Liv Tyler in Empire Records), baby doll tee shirts a la Clueless, and baggy overalls with a flannel plaid shirt tied around my waist. Music from the 1990s, to this day, still dominates my playlists, such as Wilson Phillips, the Bangles, Nelson (embarrassingly), Mariah Carey, Madonna, Salt-N-Pepa, Garbage, No Doubt, Alanis Morissette, and of course hip-hop (East and West Coast, no bias!). I remember wanting to dye my hair red like Claire Danes in My So Called Life, since I had already copied the sleek bob cut from Teri Hatcher in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. I got my first taste of ’round the clock news coverage and the methods of the media with the Bill Clinton scandal and the Oklahoma City bombings, as well as the twenty-four hour coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. However, no scandal was as salacious and exciting to me as the Tonya Harding – Nancy Kerrigan faceoff during the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. With this in mind, it is no surprise that I, Tonya is the movie in this year’s Oscar race that really tugged at my heartstrings. However, the Oscar nominated movie did more than just conjure feelings of nostalgia in me; it shrewdly presented the story through a new lens, one from Tonya Harding’s point of view and from those around her, with a deeper look into her upbringing and personal life.
I, Tonya, directed aptly by Craig Gillespie, recounts the story of Tonya Harding’s figure skating career and is based largely upon real life interviews with Tonya and her entourage in the wake of the Nancy Kerrigan clubbing scandal, or, as it is so flippantly referred to in the film, “The Incident.” Encouraged and pushed by her verbally and physically abusive mother (Allison Janney), Tonya (stellarly portrayed by Margot Robbie) becomes a formidable competitor in the demanding and image-conscious world of figure skating. The odds are against her from the outset. As we see in the film, Tonya’s peers on the ice are from seemingly well-to-do families, and they fit the cookie-cutter mold of how a little girl should look and behave. Tonya, on the other hand, is rough around the edges and sticks out like a sore thumb (In one scene, she dons a fur coat in an attempt to fit in with the other girls, but her coat is made from the fur of squirrels she and her father hunted in the woods). Tonya, however, does not let her differences stymie her success. She flouts the overt snobbery of the sport, wearing her pitiful handmade costumes without apology, lashing out at teammates and judges, and eschewing traditional choreography. Ultimately, with the help of her esteemed coach (a fantastic Julianne Nicholson) and her impulsively fiery mother (making a young Tonya stay on the ice until she urinates herself because she “paid for practice, you’re going to stay on the ice and practice”), Tonya fights her way to become one of the best in the sport, earning the distinction of being the first American female to land a triple axel in the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and securing a spot on the 1994 Olympic team. The rest is history. She gets wrapped up in the now infamous scandal with her then husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), which results in her name, albeit never particularly celebrated, being dragged through the mud. In the end, she is barred from skating completely, which is “the only thing she knows.”
I was always “Team Kerrigan” back in the day, with her All-American look and beautiful skating style, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Tonya throughout the almost mockumentary-style story. Tonya was not dealt an easy hand between the abuse, the hatred from the public, judges, and fellow skaters, and her unconventional, and at times tumultuous, upbringing. I couldn’t help but wonder how her life would have turned out had she not had skating as her outlet to channel her anger and frustrations. Perhaps this is the sort of “redemption” director Craig Gillespie was going for in the film. Allison Janney is absolutely brilliant as the mother, LaVona Fay Golden, showing us that there is a whole other level of tough love. Highlighted in a scene when Tonya asks her if she ever loved her, LaVona replies “Oh, poor fucking you. I didn’t stay home making apple brown betties, no, I made you a champion, knowing you would hate me for it.” I can’t imagine still trying to be a champion—or even wanting to be a champion—after hearing that, which makes the story all the more intriguing. I have heard critiques that I, Tonya only serves to make Tonya out to be just a punchline, and in the end, a joke, but I disagree. I think the movie made Tonya a whole new champion, and that is coming from someone who read every single article about the Kerrigan-Harding debacle and who was never a big fan of Tonya in the first place. The Tonya I saw in the movie was someone who had the strength to push herself to be the best, in spite of being constantly heckled and put down, and repeatedly being told she did not fit in or have what it takes to be a champion. Although not nominated for Best Picture, I certainly believe this movie is a worthy Oscar contender (with a phenomenal soundtrack, I might add!). It took a story that I thought I knew about, and a person who I thought I understood, and made me look at it through a different set of eyes. Imagine if we could see all stories through two lenses? The world might be a different place.