I, Tonya
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I, Tonya

If you were to look up what Tonya Harding is doing in recent years, it would reveal the life of a ‘D’ list celebrity eking out a living. It is possible to watch her as a comic commentator for the Tru-TV clip show, ‘World’s Dumbest.’ Many may find it difficult accept, but she is in the history books as the first woman to ever successfully perform the Triple Axel, in competition. It is the most difficult move in the sport of figure skating, and even today only a handful of top-tier skaters were able to master it. The film, ‘I, Tonya,’ chronicles the life of this former athlete exploring the details of her rise to greatest and plummeting fall to disgrace. Ms. Harding is currently considered by the public as a footnote in history, both for sports, especially competitive figure skating, and pop culture, because of a tragic attack on a rival skater. This does raise the question of which demographic was targeted by the producers, Is quite simple, people that demand quality and talent in their entertainment. The movie boasted a phenomenal cast of talented actresses including, Julianne Nicholson, Allison Janney and in the eponymous role, Margot Robbie. Ms. Janney’s performance afforded her the rare recognition of Academy Award nominations in both the Best Leading Actress and Best Supporting Actress, taking home the golden statue for the latter. Primarily categorized as a biopic the engrossing story qualifies as a strong drama, an emotionally effective tragedy and among the best dark comedies released in recent years. The mandatory caveat applicable to any film ‘based on true events, is in effect. Liberal use of dramatic license was used among the most endearing qualities of the film in that regard was the utilization of breaking the fourth wall to highlight a potentially outrageous set of events as absolutely factual. Having the principle characters turn directly to the camera to provide inline commentary might sound annoying, but it is used in such a clever way as to contribute to the overall casual, conversational format of telling the story.

The format of this movie is imaginatively planned and executed, a mockumentary. The director, Craig Gillespie, has experience with quirky unorthodox comedies with his 2007 film, ‘Lars and the Real Girl.’ His stylistic choice managed to make the most of the screenplay by Steven Rogers. Much of the exposition required to telling the story of this unique woman provided by scenes bookended by interviews with principal characters. This establishes the consistent use of breaking the fourth wall. Frequently this technique is employed for comic effect and to some extent that applies here. More importantly, it infuses the movie with a sense of intimacy, akin to how people become heavily involved in celebrities they follow in the tabloids. This is only fitting since the trials and tribulations of Tonya Hardin was played on the pages of tabloid pages, and entertainment television shows driven by sensationalistic headlines as reflected in the attitudes presented by the actors as they developed their characters. If you are of sufficient age to remember these events as they first unfolded, then you will realize the great effort these artists took to give the audience a realistic feel for the lives of this group of people. The story begins in 1974 as LaVona Hardin (Allison Janney) brings her four-year-old daughter, Tonya (Maizie Smith), to an ice skating rink to secure the services of a renowned coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). LaVona’s first impression sours any possibility of working together. She walks on the ice with her daughter while smoking the thin, brown cigarette that is perpetually in her hand. after being admonished by Diane dropped the cigarette to the ice crushing it beneath her shoe. Greatness on a large scale typically comprised of brilliantly crafted moments like this. The force that was most important in shaping Tonya’s life was the perception that she and her mother were little more than white trash. This deleterious point of view was not just held by the world at large but by herself. Tonya lived her entire life desperate to disprove that view but too insecure to bring herself to make any significant changes. Diane initially rebuffs LaVona, but the sole positive attribute of LaVona is a single-minded push to forward Tonya’s love of skating and natural talent in the sport. After watching the precocious little girl demonstrates a talent beyond her tender age, Diane agrees.

Within an incredibly brief time, Tonya was winning competitions against much older and more experienced girls. Tonya barely started school before LaVona pulled her out to contrate on skating. The next slice of Tonya’s life is when she is around eleven years old (Mckenna Grace), which explored those crucial formative years as her mother’s aggressive personality by assuming some of the obnoxious traits. Tonya is universally disliked further isolating her from the other skaters. Her innate abilities on the ice fostered jealousy but reinforcing the white trash negative stereotype. In several ways this was the greatest tragedy of her life, is defined through the realization of her negative expectations.

Margot Robbie takes up the role with Tonya as a teenager. By fifteen she was already toughened by years of living with a physically and emotionally abusive mother. Ms. Robbie gives an extraordinary performance as the young Tonya. Most of the audience was unfamiliar with the real Tonya so Ms. Robbie wisely chooses to provide an interpretation. As a dark comedy some humor the expense of the titular subject but everyone I an artistic capacity thankfully went in another direction. Watching Ms. Robbie explore her subject is such an experience that you will want to view it many times. With each time a deeper understanding of a young woman the media used as a punchline in every late-night show monologue. For anyone expecting an extension of such treatment reformatted as a movie, be happy that this is not the case. In front of other people, Tonya shielded herself behind the façade of the white trash stereotypes. Her language liberally peppered with ‘F’ bombs delivered with the unconscious ease of breathing. Athletes with serious aspirations of Olympic competition typical hold themselves to a strict regime of diet, exercise, and grueling practice. With the except of her training, Tonya behaved like a typical rebellious teenage girl. Hating her mother was easy, LaVona’s draconian treatment of her was tantamount to torture, one point when Tonya was still very young she told her mother that she urgently needed to go to the bathroom. LaVona snaps back at the child about her sacrifice working menial jobs to pay for time on the ice, and ungrateful Tonya is staying on the ice the entire time. Forced to continue skating the little soon pees herself. LaVona’s reaction was "skate wet."

As Tonya continues to dominate skating competitions the judges continually give her scores lower than her performance deserved. She attributed it to prejudice, the judges where personally against her. This was not paranoia, they were. By acting out fulling ‘white trash’ expectations, she alienated all of them. Tonya’s resistance to change negative image creates tension between her and Diane. Strapped for cash, Tonya sows her costumes which look shabby net to the expensive one of the other young women. She had hoped that when she became the first competitor to land the triple axial, she would be taken seriously, but that dream continued to elude her. At her big chance, the 1992 Winter Olympics, she failed to execute the jumps resulting in devastating embarrassment. The white trash checklist completed when she began to date 17-year-old Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Shortly in defiance of her mother, the underage couple gets married. This is the juncture of the narrative when examples of the artist excellence in the performances build in intensity. Jeff becomes physically abusive, hitting the emotional damage on a regular basis. In one of the current day interview segment, Tonya reflects about the time in her life realizing that she never knew how love was properly express love. Her mother always hit her, so the abuse from Jeff served to reinforce a dangerously pathological expectation of expressing love in a relationship. Tonya became proficient in the application of heavy makeup which frequently came across as garnish adding to the detrimental image.

Her incredible talent and technical prowess could not offset the emotional pain the constant abuse created. The two people closest to Tonya, her mother and boyfriend/husband only intensified her pain. Being rejected by the judges ruined skating, her only source of please and pride. When a rule change split the winter and summer Olympics, the summer games were moved up to only two years away, 1994. Tonya had to increase her training to be ready greatly. Her relationship with her mother collapsed forcing her decision to leave home by marrying Jeff.as the Olympic drew closer Tonya’s former roommate Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), quickly became a national sweetheart and Olympics favorite eclipsing any mention of Tonya clawing her way for a team America spot. A wildcard which was always on the periphery her life, Jeff’s friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), became her bodyguard. Shaw was quick to tell anyone and everyone who would listen, that he is an international security and terrorism expert consulting to governments with professional associations with all the national intelligence agency. He was an underemployed looser, overweight, living in his mother’s basement. His involvement in Tonya’s career ignited what would euphemistically refer to as ‘The Incident.’

Jeff hatched a scheme to throw Nancy off her game by emailing her death threats. Since the letters couldn’t bare a local postmark, Shawn offered to assign the task of mailing the letters in another city to a pair of his top operatives, Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) and Derrick Smith (Anthony Reynolds), to post the letters. The combined IQ of these thugs was room temperature, Celsius. They misinterpret their ‘mission, leading to Derrick to attack Nancy at training, breaking her kneecap. The ensuing investigation escalated to the F.B.I. Ultimately resulting in a media circus Tonya’s place on the Olympic team is referred to the World Figure Skating Association. Although she was permitted to compete in the Olympics, supposed problem with her shoelaces throws her off; she placed 8th while Nancy took home the Silver Medal. Shawn emotionally destroyed when integrators forced him to confront his delusional life as an international security consultant. His dim-witted accomplices folded like origami when questioned by the police. They were so inept that they left clues a rookie detective could follow. LaVona gave into pressure from the tabloid media professing to love her daughter, raising her spirts only to dash them when Tonya discovered it was a ruse to record her confession to prior knowledge. Banned for life from competition Tonya desperately attempted to stay in the public eye and eke out a living as a lady boxer. With a robust musical score of the time and stellar performance all-round, this is a dark comedy that explores the life of the human tragedy behind a footnote in popular culture.

Posted    04/03/2018

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