Allison Janney gets the gold medal in “I, Tonya.”
Never mind Margot Robbie has the starring role – figure skater Tonya Harding.
With a bird perched on her shoulder and a More cigarette in her hand at all times, Janney provides the most telling glimpse into the family’s life.
Harding wasn’t just any triple-jumping skater. She was an athletic, competitive force from a low-income family who had to battle at home and at the rink to get her due.
While director Craig Gillespie certainly stacks the deck in Harding’s favor, he doesn’t cut anyone breaks. This is a warts-and-warts look at what many would say was a fairly tough life.
Using a documentary approach, Gillespie lets everyone offer his or her side of “the incident.”
When Harding tries to impress upon her mother the lack of love she felt, Janney’s LaVona doesn’t lean in. “Spilled milk,” she says and continues the cold, abusive stance she has always taken. Why, we never learn, but it’s clear from the start LaVona was a stage mother of the highest order. She forced Harding to stay on the ice even when she didn’t want to be there and got results.
From the very start, it was clear Harding wasn’t just another ice princess. The others had expensive costumes and a coterie of trainers and great marks. She sewed her own, dealt with mom and was scored poorly – or so this story goes.
Gillespie skates nicely on the edge of the truth and lets us enjoy what became a big tabloid “get.” Apparently, Harding’s husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and his friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) were part of a plot to scare Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s biggest rival. The plot went awry and, in no time, Tonya was thrust in the middle of a big Olympic story.
Looking back, the older Tonya takes a more practical view of the situation. Robbie handles the commentary nicely (matching the blasé manner of her mother) and gives us a sense of the woman who lost a lot as a result of the actions of others. While Robbie gets Tonya’s toughness, she doesn’t quite achieve the look of a wounded bird. She gives as good as she gets.
Like a Christopher Guest mockumentary, “I, Tonya” lets plenty of people weigh in – from her coaches to detractors. Oddly, Harding appears to have no friends. Kerrigan, who’s seen in passing, utters one word.
Because it’s so irreverent, “I, Tonya” works. It teases the “real” story and lets folks like Bobby Cannavale (as a tabloid journalist) have a field day.
Stan and Hauser are good, too, but it’s Janney who never fades from the picture. Even when she complains about a lack of scenes, she’s the focus.
There’s heart in the performance, too, and a lot of answers to Harding’s questionable life.
“I, Tonya” isn’t the definitive screen biography of a fallen figure skater, just a really entertaining one.