I, Tonya Movie Review: Using Camp to Deconstruct It

Although an imperfect film, I, Tonya celebrates the imperfections of its leading lady with surprising emotional resonance.
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If the year was 1994, and you were to turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper, or chat with friends and family, all discourse would be about the epic scandal known as Tonya Harding v. Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya, a lower-class figure skater from Portland, Oregon is suddenly entrenched in a social, not to mention legal battle to defend her name - a name that, until this point in time, did not really seem to matter. But after her triumph at U.S. figure skating, jettisoning her to the 1994 Olympics, she soon became a household name. Well, that and the fact that she was accused of putting a hit out on Nancy Kerrigan, her primary Olympic competitor. 

With Nancy’s knee broken, Tonya’s name slandered, and many questions left unanswered (namely, who was responsible?), Craig Gillespie dramatizes this story in I, Tonya. Opening with title cards that read, “Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly,” you immediately know that you are not in for a traditional biopic. This is further supplemented by the patchwork quilt of narrative techniques that Gillespie uses to craft this tale, including: voiceover, documentary-style filmmaking, slow motion, cut-frames, fictional archival footage, and speaking directly to the camera.

And for the most part, it all works. Front-and-center is Tonya (Margot Robbie) recounting her experiences to “us,” an audience she speaks to directly. We are equally as involved in the story as Tonya, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her former coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), and her “mommie dearest” mother, LaVona (Allison Janney). Incorporating these opposing narratives can get confusing, and it does, but that feels like the intention of I, Tonya. In brief spurts, characters refute what the other just said, looking directly into the camera and confessing, “I did not say that.” Often used for comedic effect, this ploy also works to expose the fact that, after all these years, we still do not know what actually happened to Nancy Kerrigan - and perhaps we never will.

The non-traditional, non-linear story works because Gillespie’s direction and Steven Rogers’ screenplay seem to know that, decades removed from “the incident” as the characters call it, they run the risk of spiraling into camp territory. But what is especially fascinating about I, Tonya is not that they avoid the potential campy elements to this story, but rather, embrace them.

Defined as “deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style, typically for humorous effect,” camp is employed throughout I, Tonya ingeniously. First and foremost, it is represented through the irrefutable performative nature of figure skating. Tonya, viewed by many characters (especially her judges) as “white trash,” and “unladylike,” is thrown into a world that opposes her from the very beginning. She never had a fair shake in the world of skating - and the film works to show us why. This clash of two different worlds exposes a nasty underbelly of competitive ice skating as one that is classist and sexist; just one facet of the film that feels hyper-exaggerated to prove a point. 

In recent weeks, I, Tonya has received flack for its portrayal of abuse. The editing (from Tatiana S. Riegel) is quick and peppy - leading many to argue that it glorifies the cycle of abuse that Tonya experienced and turns it into something to laugh at. However, considering its already campy nature, perhaps Riegel’s erratic editing does not attempt to explain away or condone this abuse, but rather, integrate it into Tonya’s life in very much the way Tonya learned to accept it growing up. After all, she was raised by an abusive mother and later, married an abusive man, because as Tonya explains in the film when Jeff starts to hit her, “But I figured - my mom hits me. She loves me. That’s just what I knew.”

And she later turns this around on “us,” the ones who laughed at her, mocked her, denigrated her. She says, “Then I was a punch line. It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you.” This moment stings, and many have criticized it. After all, it forces us to confront our role in this endless cycle of attack. And sure, the film establishes all of these characters who are flawed and ugly, but isn’t it worth mentioning that perhaps we are just as ugly? Maybe we didn’t throw a punch, but mock Tonya, we did. Now, the humorous aspect of camp is gone, and we are left to explore our own complicated feelings in tandem with a story that was already deeply flawed.

To be clear, I, Tonya is an incredibly messy film. Sometimes this is effective (especially when it feels intentional), other times it is not. Some characters seem superfluous to the story, Gillespie tries to superimpose Robbie’s body onto an actual ice skater with some frightening results, and some of the performances feel too broad and caricature-like. But what propels the film into “great” territory is not just from its inventive filmmaking, but from some astonishing performances.

Playing the trashy mother-from-hell, Allison Janney is menacing as LaVona - a woman rich with complications of her own. She berates her daughter, beats her daughter, throws a steak knife at her daughter. On paper, she is wicked and evil… but she also spent her life raising Tonya to be a champion, spending all of the money she made waitressing on skate lessons. And while the film never reconciles these contradictions, Janney is a comedic force, but equally as intense and deranged.

Playing Tonya Harding should be no easy feat. Just like her mother, Tonya is a woman ripe with complexities and layers. Is she unlikeable? But even if she is, why is she so sympathetic? What about Tonya Harding makes for a compelling character study? And fortunately for us, Margot Robbie is the right woman to play her. Playing her as abrasive, yet wounded, Robbie is a marvel here - somehow finding the right balance between cutthroat and vulnerable. For years, many could argue that they “knew” Tonya based on her public persona, but Robbie’s performance suggests that we were only scratching the surface.

Despite the film’s flaws, there is something positively magnetic in the way Gillespie spun this story. It is loud, brash, and campy - but somehow brilliant. Like last year’s Jackie, I, Tonya should at least be celebrated for the way it plays with the genre to tell Tonya’s story that feels respectful and creative. And while you may walk out of this experience feeling confused, conflicted by your own thoughts about Tonya, I wouldn’t worry: because maybe that was the point all along.

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