I, Tonya follows the career of American figure skating legend, Tonya Harding, from childhood to the infamous attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan she may have had a hand in. The film features tremendous performances from Margot Robbie (Tonya) and Alison Janney (as her monstrous mother, LeVona). However, director Craig Gillespie makes some major missteps along the way.
The story is, at its core, a searing indictment of prejudices in American class structures. From an early age, Tonya’s impoverished background proves to be a major hindrance to her career. She is told she stands out not due to her technical prowess, but because she “looks like she chops wood every morning.” When she’s not training, she works part-time as a waitress to fund her career. Her frizzy hair, hand-made costumes, and acrylic nails are repeatedly contrasted with the sleek hair and fur coats of the other skaters. One of the judges even tells her “you’re not the image we want to portray”. However, these situations are moments where Tonya’s strength and resilience are illuminated, as she vows to “never apologise for growing up poor, or being […] what I am.” These moments hint towards opportunities for in-depth, poignant explorations of class/poverty-based discrimination in sport, but the film – unforgivably – mines Tonya’s ‘uncouth’ manner for comedic purposes.
Arguably the greatest misstep in the film is the comedic presentation of domestic violence. From an early age, Tonya is a victim of physical and mental abuse from her mother. This assault continues at the hands of her husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who repeatedly and violently attacks her. Rather than exploring the effect of this violence on Tonya’s life and career, Gillespie instead trivialises it, using violence as a source of comedy throughout the film. Indeed, Tonya quips that she doesn’t understand the furore surrounding Kerrigan’s attack, since Nancy was “only hit once”, whereas Tonya has been a victim of violence throughout her life. This ‘joke’, followed by a montage of Tonya being assaulted by Jeff, marks a shift from comedy to drama that proves extremely disjunctive, leading to the apparent use of domestic violence as a comedic device in the narrative. The soundtrack of upbeat 80s pop music further trivialises scenes of violence, as scenes become more like Tom and Jerry than realistic portrayals of domestic abuse.
Overall, whilst the film features superb central performances, it’s a missed opportunity for a poignant representation and exploration of experiences at the intersection of class and gender-based victimisation. Rather than exploring the complex forces that shaped Tonya’s life, and the hurdles she overcame to become a record-breaking athlete, this lm instead chooses to skate over the surface of Tonya’s life, creating a broad comedic narrative that offers ‘cheap’ laughs at the expense of critical, serious exploration.