Given the gift of being lightning on skates set against a truly abysmal, trailer trash environment, Tonya glides on ice under extreme mental and emotional duress meted out by a stage-mother-from-hell, a trope redefined by a brilliant Allison Janney who steals every scene. Too, "I, Tonya" thumbs its nose at inspiring sports films where underdogs succeed against all odds to make it big. An unrecognizable and equally brilliant Margot Robbie tells us so with acid in her voice by breaking the fourth wall as if in a documentary.
The events leading to what's called "the incident" (the attack on Nancy Kerrigan) are too insane to be believed. Harding, we're told, is not entirely an innocent victim, but her complicity is fairly portrayed - and payback for breaking the rules in a genteel sport where Tonya's blue-painted fingernails, self-made costume and rock song accompaniment are not welcome. At the end, she is banned for life from skating competitions even after pleading to the judge to send her to prison instead of taking from her the only brightness in her awful life.
The brilliance of "I, Tonya" stems from juxtaposing Ms. Harding's skills against the struggles of her personal life. Her familial abuse spills over to choosing a husband who beats her for no reason. She is not a Phoenix rising from the ashes but rather a bird who tries to flap unsuccessfully from the fire only to fall back incinerated. An argument could be made "I, Tonya" is a feminist film but without mawkish sentiment for a poor, powerless waif. She divorces her scumbag husband only to bring him back in her life when she needs him which leads to his twisted arrangement of "the incident."
This is God's joke on her. Powerlessness, no education (she drops out of high school to skate), an unsupportive family and the settling for abuse align. The eight hours a day practice cannot overcome the gaping hole in her soul and psyche.
"I, Tonya," minus the skating, is the story of America's low-income underbelly where crassness is a way of life and abuse is mistaken for love. It is also a story of how people cling to insane beliefs they are something they are not because there is nothing else in their miserable empty lives. This is underscored by Shawn (a fine Paul Walter Hauser) who pretends to be an obese, overeating expert in intelligence with an IQ of ten.
The intercutting of documentary footage adds spice to the proceedings, and the behind-the-scenes of Olympic worthy skating is illuminating.
With rich layers, a search for truth, exciting skating scenes and a perverse underdog story, "I, Tonya" succeeds in every sense. The acting is Oscar-worthy for Janney and Robbie. Don't miss it!