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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Feb 15, 2018

I, Tonya Movie Review: The Story Of Figure Skater Tonya Harding Which Show How A Biopic Should Be Made With Margot Robbie In A Performance That Deserves To Win An Award

IN 1994, figure skater Tonya Harding hit the headlines worldwide for being associated in a violent attack on her chief rival, Nancy Kerrigan, that aims to break her leg but only bruised it. Her hopes of winning the U.S. title were dashed and she also failed to score high in the Norway Winter Olympics. The filmbio, “I, Tonya” shows what happened before and after that story that became a fodder for tabloids and damaged her career beyond repair.

The inventive style used in telling Tonya’s story is that of a mockumentary with a heavy touch of black comedy deliberately giving us alternate doses of humor and pathos. The characters involved are shown being interviewed directly for the camera, but they are played by the actors representing the roles.

Tonya is played by Australian actress Margot Robbie, her mother LaVona is played by Allison Janney and her husband Jeff is Sebastian Stan. Another key player is a reporter of the Hard Copy tabloid TV news (Bobby Cannavale) who tries to guide us through Tonya’s life with his own opinions and inputs.

As a child, Tonya is coerced by her monster mom to be a skater in Oregon, inflicting on her both physical and psychological abuse. Her husband, in turn, is an incorrigible wife beater. She’d leave him but he’d woo her back and she’d agree to reconcile with him, only to be beaten up again. As Tonya says in a touching line in the film, Nancy Kerrigan was hit once and it turned into headline news, while she was being hit daily from childhood and no one cares.

The odds are obviously stacked against Tonya. Even the judges admit that her coming from a lower class, white trash background was taken against her and became minus points in scoring her performances on the rink. She is the first female skater to successfly do a triple axel in competition but her technical excellence is dismissed because she’s not wholesome enough to project the face and the snobbish socio-economic ideals of ice skating as a sport.

They’ll choose Kerrigan over her anytime because she has better breeding. This shows the very commercial orientation of Olympic competitions where Tonya’s diligence in training is discounted and her personal background is perceived as an unacceptable character flaw.

Overall, the film paints a very sad soap operaish portrait of the doomed skater. It’s quite obvious that she’s starving for love all her life. But it does not condone Tonya’s instances of misbehavior. She made some very bad decisions, but it does ask us to give her more more understanding on why she turned out that way. What happened to Kerrigan cannot just be dismissed or forgiven and Tonya cannot just declare that she’s not to be blamed at all. The film is directed by Bruce Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”), who bends many filmmaking rules to show us that in what happened, they are both victims by the men who tried to manipulate Tonya’s life and career, including her idiotic, obese self appointed bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Hauser).

The film’s good choices of the songs from the 80s and 90s also fit the pop soundtrack quite perfectly. Its period production design, costumes and make up are all first rate, including the constantly moving camera work, coupled with absolutely outstanding performances.

Allison Janney is quite terrifying in an unapologetic portrayal of the warped, chain-smoking mom who obviously lit the fires of incipient brutality in her own daughter. She has won so many Emmy Awards (four for the “West Wing” alone). Who knows? She might get her first Oscar this time, unless it’s Lauren Metcalfe of “Lady Bird” who gets the voters’ nod. Sebastian Stan (“The Winter Soldier” of “Captain America”) is someone you’d surely hate as the abusive husband.

Before we saw “I, Tonya”, our personal bet to win best actress in the coming Oscars is Saoirse Ronan who’s totally captivating as the high school teener who desperately wants to leave her family for college in “Lady Bird”. After her, we love Meryl Streep’s interpretation of Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post in Spielberg’s The Post. We also enjoyed Frances McDormand as Maggie, the mom who wants justice and revenge for her murdered daughter in “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”. The one we like the least is Sally Hawkins in “The Shape Water”, a fantasy flick about an ugly girl who has an affair with a siokoy which, for us, is so overrated.

But Margot Robbie in “I, Tonya” (she previously shone as Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad”) totally transforms herself into a very persuasive embodiment of Tonya, perfectly mirroring with so much emotional resonance her anguish, pains, struggles and even her foul mouth from Tonya’s teen years to her 40s. Our eyes get hooked on her everytime she’s on screen and we find her portrayal so awesome that she’s now our first choice.

She delivers all her lines with so much conviction, even the wisecracks and the one-liners. It’s also apparent that she trained herself very hard for the skating scenes. But unfortunately, we doubt if she’d win the Oscar. Our guess is it would still go to McDormand, unless the backlash on “Ebbing” works against her favor.