Saturday, January 06, 2018

I, Tonya

This morning I saw I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie and Allison Janney.

Figure skater Tonya Harding (Robbie) should be remembered for her career-making triple axel, but the history books will only care about the scandal involving how her rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), got clubbed in the knee. This film shows what (may have) happened, based on interviews with Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) who were both charged in the attack.

Disclaimer before I continue: Tonya Harding isn't just some abstract figure that I saw on television when I was younger—she was a girl from the neighborhood. As a Southeast Portland native, our families crossed paths multiple times. As a young child, my sister took ice skating lessons with her at Lloyd Center ice rink; in high school, I spent many lunch breaks watching Tonya practice for The Olympics because she trained at the Clackamas Town Center rink, which was in the mall where I worked. Also in the early 1990s, my Grandmother worked for a senior club's dance classes where I sometimes helped out at the registration desk—and chatted often with Tonya's mother (who went by 'Sandy,' not LaVona, as the movie shows). She was always quite pleasant to me.

The movie is shot like a mockumentary. The actors narrate their sides of the story, talking-head style, and re-enactments look back on the events that shaped Tonya's life. They begin with her practices at Lloyd Center in the early '70s, emphasizing how tough her mother was on her. They age her quickly so Margo Robbie can take the reins portraying her, and that she does quite well. Her scenes are both laugh-out-loud hilarious and tear-inducing sad.

By the time Tonya's competing at a professional level, she's already fallen in love with Gillooly (who was also abusive) and fallen out with her mother. Tonya was bratty, rebellious, tough—a poster girl for white trash—but she was also dedicated, talented and real.

Janney's portrayal of Sandy ... er, LaVona, is bait for every major award. She nails her mannerisms and intonation, and offers just enough in her eyes to show that the mother truly loves her daughter. Also impressive was Sebastian Stan as Gillooly, who always appeared very mild-mannered on the surface, but was a violent jerk behind closed doors. I'm pretty sure he really loved Tonya too, in whatever warped way he could.

Where the film goes wrong is its portrayal of Portland. Those of us who were born and raised there (and probably those who have only visited, too) can tell that it wasn't filmed there. Georgia foliage doesn't look like Pacific Northwest greenery. Also, little details are off—like, Lloyd Center was an outside mall until their major remodel in 1991, but in the first few scenes it looks like tiny Tonya practices on an indoor rink. The vibe should be more Portlandia and less small-town-hicksville. We get that she didn't have a lot of money; simple stock footage of the skyline would have been a nice touch to remind us there was a city that claimed her and was alternately proud/embarrassed by her.

The way they present the sequence of events is wildly entertaining, though. You won't be bored for a millisecond. And the story will most likely leave you empathizing with the former skater more than hating her.

Overall, I'd give it a 5.8.


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