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Movie Review

Ever since Sonja Henie floated across a sheet of Olympic ice in St. Mortiz in 1928, competitive women's figure skating has been as much art as sport. Forget the jumps, the spins, the countless hours of dedication. A champion needs to make it all look effortless—to glide across the ice like a vision. A skater must be a ballerina, a princess, an angel, her outfit shimmering in silk and sequins, her face tranquil and beautiful, her every gesture embraced by grace.

Then again, Tonya Harding was a champion—for a minute or two, anyway. And she ain't any of that.

Tonya's a rhino in a field of unicorns, Rosie the Riveter in a party of princesses. Some called her the Charles Barkley of figure skating—muscular, bold, competitive and crass. In a world of prim debutants who stick out their pinkies when they sip tea, Tonya takes a beer from the fridge and drinks straight from the bottle.

LaVona, Tonya's mother, saw her little girl's love for skating early on and taught her it was a blood sport. When Tonya chats with another skater on the ice, LaVona puts a stop to it. "That girl's your enemy!" she shouts. When Tonya wets herself because her mother won't let her take a bathroom break, LaVona has no remorse. "Skate wet," she instructs.

Tonya's coach, Dianne Rawlinson, suggests to LaVona that perhaps she should think about not only how Tonya's fitting in with the other skaters, but how she's growing up—and what she's learning from her driving, raging, profanity-spewing mother. Her mother's having none of that. Tonya may not fit in, but she can do a triple.

Yes indeed, she can. Tonya may not be a vision of grace on the ice, but she can leap with the best of 'em, and can land that infamous triple axel—a soaring jump where you need to rotate three-and-a-half times—that no other woman in the world can do. Sure, the other girls can skate around like Disney princesses and look beautiful in the moonlight, but Tonya can jump over the moon and then some. That should be worth something, right?

And it is. Sometimes. In 1991, Tonya is crowned the U.S. Women's Figure Skating Champion. "I was loved," she later says. "For the first time, I knew—I knew—I was the best figure skater in the world. At one point in time."

By then, she's no longer with her abusive mother, LaVona. She's married her first real beau, Jeff Gillooly. So what if he might also be a little abusive? That's just how people in Tonya's circle show their love, right?

But Tonya's abrasive attitude still rubs skating officials raw. Her sometimes casual approach to training nibbles away at her in-rink skills. She finishes fourth in the 1992 Olympics, right behind the graceful Nancy Kerrigan. She slips to sixth in the world in 1993. And when qualifying for the 1994 Olympics begins in earnest, there's serious danger that she might not make the Olympic team at all.

Still, that'd be no reason to try to eliminate one of her U.S. rivals, would it? Nope. No sir. No way, no how.

"Nancy and I were friends," she later says of Nancy Kerrigan. "What kind of friggin' person would bash in a friend's knee?"

Positive Elements

I, Tonya pays homage in its title to I, Claudius, a much-praised novel by Robert Graves. In the book, Claudius (a real, historical figure) is a stooped, stammering, ill-regarded royal who for years is kept out of the spotlight because he doesn't look or sound like a Roman emperor should. But when he finally claims the throne (after pretty much everyone else in succession is dead), he proves to be one of the empire's most able leaders.

This movie suggests that there's something of Claudius in Tonya. She, too, was not considered suitable to be a champion. But even though she dealt with innumerable and arguably unfair challenges—from skating's elitist culture to the brutal behavior of her own mother—Tonya managed to succeed through dedication, talent and sheer force of will. And while we may not like her or approve of her behavior, we can at least respect her tenacity.

Like Claudius, Tonya was surrounded by plenty of off-ice drama. Many of us probably know what happened in the real Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan rivalry: How Nancy Kerrigan did indeed get her knee bashed and how folks in Tonya's circle, if not Tonya herself, were involved in perhaps the most bungling caper in Olympic history. But this movie is told primarily from Tonya's point of view; and she had no idea that Shawn Eckhardt was going to hire a couple of dumb thugs to wreck Nancy's career. Sure, Tonya may be guilty of trying to intimidate Nancy through a little ol' death threat. But plotting to have her knee thwacked? Of this, Tonya is completely innocent.

Tonya's not completely without positive role models, though. Her coach, Dianne, does her best to steer her headstrong charge in a better, healthier direction. And when it looks as though Tonya's career is over, Dianne is the lone person in her corner who still believes she's got what it takes to make it to the Olympics again. "The world has given you a second chance," she tells Tonya. "I know you don't believe in them, but I do."

Spiritual Content

Diane talks about the possibility of miraculous second chances.

Sexual Content

Tonya says that Jeff Gillooly was the first person she ever dated. Tonya's mother comes along on their first date, asking vulgarly if they've had sex yet. They hadn't at that point, but it was only a matter of time. They wind up living together before they tie the knot, and we see them make out frantically, as well as tumbling onto beds and floors to have sex. (We see some explicit movements as well as perhaps just a bit of Jeff's exposed backside.) They kiss frequently. Eventually, Tonya divorces Jeff, but they continue to work closely together.

We don't see any explicit nudity between Tonya and Jeff, but a scene does take place in a strip club, and we see topless dancers wearing tassels working in the background. When Tonya is a teen, we see her in a bra. Her brother grabs her (clothed) breast at one point. Tonya skates to ZZ Top's suggestive song "Sleeping Bag." Skaters, naturally, wear form-fitting outfits for competition. We learn that LaVona now lives behind a porn shop.

Violent Content

The attack on Nancy's knee is pretty brief and bloodless. We see a guy whip out the baton and land the blow. While trying to get away, the assailant finds the door to the outside is locked and, in desperation, breaks the door's glass with his head. He knocks over a guy as he flees.

And then there's the abuse that LaVona, Jeff and Tonya inflict upon each other. When Tonya is just a little girl, LaVona beats her with a brush. She kicks over a chair Tonya's sitting in. When Tonya's older, the two fight, and one winds up stabbing the other in the arm with a knife. (We see blood on both the arm and the table.) LaVona pays someone to heckle her, too. "The thing about Tonya, she would skate better when she was enraged," her mom says by way of excuse.

When Tonya moves in with Jeff, she suggests that she exchanged one abusive relationship for another. We see Jeff slap and punch Tonya in the face and slam her against walls. She later gets a restraining order against him. Her face is sometimes bloody and bruised. Tonya slaps Jeff, too, and at one point tells him that he should just kill himself.

She also shoots at him with a shotgun. "I never did this," Tonya says as she ejects a casing from the weapon. Indeed, the movie suggests that neither Tonya nor Jeff are necessarily reliable narrators: Jeff characterizes himself as a "pretty meek guy" who'd never hurt anyone. Meanwhile, Tonya is, in her mind, always the victim. The film simply documents the chaos from each of their points of view.

As a child, Tonya and her father shoot and skin rabbits (we don't see the bullet hit, but we do see a carcass dressed), and her father makes her a fur coat out of the pelts. Tonya throws skates at her coach. She pushes past other skaters. After her skating career is over, Tonya takes up boxing: We see her getting beaten savagely and knocked down, spitting blood out on the ring floor before getting back up again.

Crude or Profane Language

About 130 f-words, 25 s-words and three uses of the c-word. We also hear "a--," "b--ch," "d--n" and "h---," along with seven misuses of God's name (three with "d--n") and five abuses of Jesus' name. We also see a couple of crass hand gestures. There's a crude verbal reference to the male anatomy. A guy from a television tabloid opines that the two people who actually perpetrated the attack on Nancy were the "two biggest boobs in a story populated solely by boobs."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Tonya and most of the folks in her circle smoke cigarettes. We see her at one point stop smoking right before going on the ice and snuffing the butt out with her skate blade. She drinks beer, too; a few scenes take place in bars. In a flashback, we see Tonya and Nancy in a hotel room together, shotgunning beers. Jeff's car is pulled over when he's drunk and the car contains alcohol (and a couple of guns besides.)

Other Negative Elements

Tonya knows that Jeff and Shawn are plotting to throw off Nancy's game somehow, but she believes that they're "just" going to send a couple of threatening letters. (In fact, she got the inspiration when she received a death threat of her own and assumed someone from a rival skating camp sent it to her.) It's later suggested that Shawn masterminded the attack himself to drum up more business. "I'm Tonya's bodyguard," he says. "Now maybe more athletes are going to need a bodyguard."

A very young Tonya wets herself. Feigning a tender reunion, LaVona carries a tape recorder into Tonya's house and tries to sneak a confession out of her.

Conclusion

"Tonya, tell the truth!" an unchastened Tonya Harding says several years after the Nancy Kerrigan incident, mimicking her inquisitors. "There's no such thing as truth. Everyone has their own truth."

It's a pretty cynical statement, uttered by a woman who's never been given a reason to be anything but. She was taught from the cradle to look out for No. 1, 'cause sure as shootin' no one else was going to.

There's a lesson in here for us, I think—a reminder of how much kids need an encouraging word or two growing up, and a reminder of what can happen when they don't get it. This movie doesn't ask us to like Tonya Harding. But it does ask us to understand her a little better. I, Tonya is presented as a dark comedy, and yes, it can be funny. But it's a tragedy, too. Sometimes we see that tragedy written on Tonya's face (played exquisitely by Margot Robbie), and we're left to wonder what could've been.

The content here is its own concentrated tragedy, of course. Nary a kind word is heard in I, Tonya, but plenty of profane ones are. Those who wish to weather this tru-ish story will need to weather gales of f-words, many of them uttered by the movie's deeply flawed protagonist.

I, Tonya is, in a way, an anti-redemption story, about a would-be superstar who grew up in a prodigal house and a judgmental industry, and somehow succeeded in spite of all that. Then she sabotaged her own career (with plenty of help). And then, miracle of miracles, she was given a second chance.

I know you don't believe in them, her coach told her. But I do.

But the company you keep matters. The decisions you make matter. Tonya Harding's story could've been one for the ages, a Rocky redux made real. Instead, it's a farce. "I was loved for a minute," she laments. "Then I was hated. Then … I was just a punchline."

Tonya Harding says there's no such thing as truth. But her own words reveal the lie in that statement. Truth is she was loved, and hated, and became a punchline. Truth is that I, Tonya, gives us reasons for all three responses, but in such a way that it blisters the ears, makes you giggle and somehow, still saddens your soul.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding; Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly; Allison Janney as LaVona Golden; Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt; Julianne Nicholson as Diane Rawlinson

Director

Craig Gillespie ( )

Distributor

Neon

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

January 5, 2018

On Video

March 13, 2018

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
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