Who among us doesn't recall when figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed in the '90s and the whole wide world implicated rival Tonya Harding? Chances are, the way it really went down is nothing like what you think. It was, in fact, so much stupider than one could possibly imagine, but with Suicide Squad's Margot Robbie leading the charge in I, Tonya from director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), we do get an inside glimpse at Harding and her outliers, ultimately gaining much-needed perspective toward a sympathetic figure who was more tragic victim of circumstance than maniacal villain.
Robbie completely dominates as Harding, an abused and disadvantaged skater with stars in her eyes and just enough terrible hangers-on to make it all impossible. Whether skating was her own dream or one thrust upon her remains unclear, but as the first US athlete to pull off the mind-bogglingly difficult triple axel jump, she clearly had talent. Still, it was either unappreciated by snobby professional figure skating entities or squandered by her ruthless, self-interested mother (played brilliantly by recent Golden Globe winner Allison Janney) and abusive husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). According to the film, if Harding's mother wasn't hitting her, her husband was and, all the while, poverty prevented her from being presentable in the eyes of judges.
Things get pretty rough, but Robbie's performance perfectly defines a flawed anti-heroine for whom things might have worked out so differently if not for her hot-headed temper and piss-poor relationships. We get the things out of her control almost immediately, and we really do feel for her—especially upon learning it was Gillooly's thick-headed pal/Harding's bodyguard, Shawn, who had planned and executed the incident.
This isn't to say, however, that I, Tonya isn't also very funny at times. Super Troopers' Paul Walter Hauser sneaks up on you as the idiotic Shawn, and Julianne Nicholson (Black Mass) has an understated excellence as Harding's coach and more positive maternal figure. Still, it's Robbie who makes the film worth watching, even if its faux-documentary style errs a little more toward Ferris Bueller than Goodfellas. She showcases a natural depth and emotional access heretofore unseen from the relative rookie, and it couldn't have been easy to make an audience root for a figure once so hated. All the same, at this point, Robbie could probably do whatever she felt like. We'd line up to see it.
+Robbie is fantastic; surprisingly funny
-Bobby Canavale's pointless role
Directed by Gillespie
With Robbie, Janney, Stan, Hauser and Nichols
Violet Crown, R, 120 min.