After long admiring its nouveau Americana soundtrack, I finally sat down and watched Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, a critical darling from 2017 that stars Aussie actress Margot Robbie as its titular heroine full of gumption. Crafted with extraordinary, ethereal ice skating shots, the film develops a narrative about class and domestic violence. It offers an alternative storyline to the media-driven exaggerated catfight between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. Despite the movie’s awe-inspiring shots and narrative ambition, I can’t help but have mixed feelings about it.
It’s hard to deny the dazzling ’80s inspired set design of the film, which is drenched in sparkles and Barbie hues of hot pinks and azure blues when Tonya skates, then placed in dull, brown shades when she’s with her abusive mother or husband. The camera’s low angles empower its subject as a master of the ice while the crane shots highlight her vulnerability to the prejudices leveraged against her upbringing. The film is shot with digital and 35 mm film technology, which lends it both an antiquated and modern feel. What I mean to say from all of this is that it’s a beautiful film to watch.
The film obviously aims to subvert the ideals of the American Dream. As hard as Tonya works, she will always be judged by her looks, poor upbringing, and dysfunctional family. But I’m not sure if the actors were as deep into their roles as they needed to be. I suppose that the facetious tone was a stylistic choice. Still, the irony, humor, and fourth-wall-breaking sometimes took away from the heart of the story in exchange for gimmicky jokes and stunts. For example, I’m not sure if the scenes depicting domestic abuse had the gravitas that they deserved as we hear cheerful music playing in the background and Tonya breaking the fourth wall to crack a joke. Sebastian Stan’s performance as Jeff Gillooly struck me as ingratiatingly ironic, violent for the sake of violence, and hardly genuine (I do love him as Bucky Barnes though, OK?). If there’s a performance that anchored the film, maybe even more so than Robbie’s, it was Allison Janney’s portrayal of Lavona Golden, Tonya’s single mother who waitressed to pay for her daughter’s skate lessons. Lavona was perhaps the only fully nuanced character in the film, abusive and heinous, yet sympathetic and complicated.
If there’s a word to describe I, Tonya, it’s stylish. Stylish to look at, stylish in terms of its ironic mockumentary style. Beneath the style, there’s substance, but I’m not sure if it’s discernible to everyone.