Director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm
, The Finest Hours
) could’ve told the story of Tonya Harding, the skater who allegedly engineered an attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Olympics, in any number of ways.
That he chose to stage his biopic as a mockumentary proved to be the right choice. In his capable hands, the dark comedy that often breaks the fourth wall provides a critique of celebrity culture and simultaneously captures the absurdity and tragedy of the situation.
The movie opens areawide on Friday.
The film commences with a look at Tonya’s troubled childhood. Her chain-smoking, verbally abusive mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney, in an Oscar-worthy performance) regularly scolds young Tonya for not skating well enough, even though Tonya is clearly a talented skater from the time she’s a young girl (LaVona takes Tonya to a coach when she's a "soft 4"). LaVona is a real piece of work; she even calls the other skaters' mothers "cunts" and regularly spikes her coffee with alcohol as she watches the tournaments from the sidelines.
When we flash forward to Tonya’s late teens, we see that little has changed. LaVona continues to reprimand Tonya (Margot Robbie, also in an Oscar-worthy performance) every time she loses and blames Tonya for making the family live in squalor, so she can have her chance to be a competitive skater.
Because she skates so aggressively and doesn’t come off like she’s come kind of princess, Tonya, who at one point says she refuses to look like a "retarded tooth fairy," has a hard time getting high scores from the judges. But she develops a secret weapon — the triple axel, which she performs at the 1991 Nationals. An extremely difficult spin move, it allows her to start winning. Tonya finally gets some recognition and makes the Olympic team.
But as her professional life takes a turn for the better, her personal life takes a turn for the worse, and she marries her physically abusive boyfriend Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who hatches a plot with his whack job friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to deliver a blow to Kerrigan’s knee that will knock her out of the Olympics. The characters in the film will refer to this as "the incident."
As we all know, the plot doesn’t go as planned and Tonya winds up taking the blame. She participates in the Olympics but is subsequently banned for life from United States Figure Skating Association events. The film captures the tragedic comedy at the core of the string of events that finds Tonya and Jeff giving conflicting testimonies about what actually transpired and who knew what.
The film's conclusion even shows how Tonya wound up with a short-lived career as a female boxer before fading from the spotlight. Stick around for the final credits to see vintage footage of the real people; at that point, you'll realize how well the film captures the motley crew that came together for this media spectacle.