I, TONYA: we can laugh, but must not judge

Margot Robbie in I, TONYA

The riotously funny docucomedy I, Tonya relives the tawdry story of figure skating star Tonya Harding, brought to disgrace when her supporters injured her competitor Nancy Kerrigan.  Margot Robbie (significantly glammed down) is exceptional as Tonya Harding.

Harding, of course, came from scruffy working class roots in Portland.  With disadvantages of class and poor education,  Tonya was unequipped to navigate a world dominated by middle and upper classes.  In I, Tonya, she refers to herself as a redneck and acts like trailer trash – really unapologetic trailer trash.

But I, Tonya adds another level to Tonya’s story.   In I, Tonya, Tonya’s mother LaVona (Allison Janney) is more than a driven, severe stage mother – she’s unrelentingly abusive, both emotionally and physically.  To make matters worse, Tonya escapes LaVona’s perpetual nastiness by running away into the arms of Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and his chronic domestic violence.  At one point, Tonya reflects, “All I knew was violence“.

The beauty and effectiveness of Steven Rogers’ screenplay is that we can laugh at misadventures of these folks while deeply sympathizing with Tonya – scarred and shaped by abusive experiences.  The characters all break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience – very effective here.  Rogers and director Craig Gillespie maintain a perfect balance between the laughs and the abuse – sometimes at the same time.  This is the Aussie Gillespie’s best work.

Alison Janney in I, TONYA

LaVona’s spiteful bile is so extreme that it’s darkly funny.  Allison Janney, who is superb as this poisonous woman,  is probably America’s least vain actor. And nobody has ever had a better sense of comic timing.  She made me laugh out loud the first time I saw her, in 1998’s Primary Colors, and she keeps the audience guffawing in I, Tonya.

Jeff’s friend Shawn (a brilliant Paul Walter Hauser), who “masterminds” the attack on Kerrigan,  is so catastrophically stupid that he is unable to comprehend the profundity of his own stupidity.  In the closing credits, we get to glimpse the real LaVona and the real Shawn.

Julianne Nicholson is excellent as Tonya’s hyper-polite coach.  In a very brief role, Ricky Russert brilliantly brings out the glorious combination of panic and idiocy of “hit” man Shane Stant.

Once Tonya has been hounded by the media and suffered complete public humiliation, she faces the camera and says to the audience, “you have been my abusers“.  It’s not preachy or overdone, and this brief moment is crisp and unforgettable.  We have been laughing at her, but who are we to judge this survivor of family violence?

I, Tonya is captivating combination of sympathy and hilarity – and one of the year;s best films.

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