I, TONYA (At the Multiplex: February, 2018)

I, Tonya
D. Craig Gillespie

I, Tonya is the best trailer park movie since Freeway (1996), which came out two decades ago, starred a young Reese Witherspoon, and scared the bejesus out of the seven people who saw it.

Like Freeway, I Tonya features a fierce, petite blonde with a crappy, violent home life trying to transcend her surroundings.

Unlike Freeway, which made a mockery of concepts like Academy Awards or Golden Globes, I Tonya carries no trace of art, even in the acting. But the craft is superb, especially in the acting. The nominations have poured in.

Both films were made in a spirit of condescension toward their central characters and their respective milieus. Both films pretend otherwise, in that smug, painfully sincere way only the best Liberals can manage to sustain for the length of a pitch meeting, let alone a full shoot.

I didn’t grow up in a trailer park. But I was born in one and I lived close enough to some others to know how hard it is for anyone to either escape or avoid noticing when someone is looking down their nose. In this sense I, Tonya‘s craft has Freeway‘s crazy art beat: It’s poignant in spite of itself–poignant because the memory of the real life Tonya Harding washes over the entire enterprise. Anyone who wasn’t a skate fanatic at the time (early nineties) will learn a lot from this movie and I don’t just mean facts. Nothing about her inner workings, mind you–Margot Robbie’s superb impersonation is all on the surface. Not for nothing has it been compared to movies like Goodfellas and To Die For, which also lived on surfaces no sane person would want to touch anywhere outside of a movie.

But, unlike the “real life” characters at the heart of those films, Harding is someone a sane person can sympathize with. The movie doesn’t really answer–or, to its credit, try to answer–what she knew about her not-very-bright boyfriend arranging an attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan and when she knew it. It does give a sense of why she might not have considered such an event the worst thing in the world. And it makes it possible for you to feel the same–not, I confess, a feeling I ever wanted to have, even though I rooted for Harding in the skating rivalry and always hoped she didn’t have anything to do with the attack.

I guess the best thing the movie does for someone like me–a casual fan with a class-oriented rooting interest but no major investment–is fudge the line between that interest and an acceptance that, for Harding, there was no easy way out. She was trying to revolutionize her sport because it was the only chance she had of winning big. No trailer park kid who made her own costumes because no one around her could afford to buy anything off the rack, let alone have it designed and custom made, was ever going to crack the snobbish code that rules ladies’ figure skating by merely skating better. Once you realize that–and one of the movie’s few weaknesses is that it cracks you over the head with the point again and again, perhaps thinking the intended audience would be too dense to pick up on any subtleties (and given the nervous is-this-a-joke-too? laughter in the theater when the closing credits informed us that Harding wants to be known as a good mother, the filmmakers may not have been wrong)–it becomes possible to see Tonya Harding as something I half-suspected all along. A bigger victim than Nancy Kerrigan.

Besides all that (and ten times as many “fucks” as you ever heard in a real trailer park before Hollywood moved in and showed everyone how to do it), there are some real laughs.

And, at the very end, at least a small sense of what it’s like to master your sport–to be the best at something even for a single, fleeting moment.

That’s a lot more than nothing, maybe even enough to be worth the price of the ticket.

It’s just that I wish the movie had caught the heart that was forever showing on Tonya Harding’s tough little face back when she was within an inch of breaking free from the trap the Cosmos had planned for her. Instead, it settles for cleverness, for always pulling the punch at the last second, striving only to entertain us at the expense of demanding that we feel something that will last past the parking lot.

Perhaps some day, someone will make an epic trailer park movie that neither panders nor romanticizes. I, Tonya isn’t quite it. But it’s good enough, and conventional enough (that Oscar ought to just about fit Allison Janney’s lived-in performance as Harding’s hard-case mother), that I can imagine someone coming along in the next ten or twenty years and learning from its mistakes.

Who knows, maybe they won’t even have to resort to parodying someone who lived in the real world and took every hard knock it had to give without backing up an inch or crying over spilt milk. Maybe they’ll just imagine it.

8 thoughts on “I, TONYA (At the Multiplex: February, 2018)

  1. Is this still in theaters? If not, I hope it gets a DVD release; so many new films seem to wind up only on Blu Ray. Growing up in trailer parks is indeed not an easy childhood, because some people do look down on you. I worked hard to escape but I know people
    who did everything right and still couldn’t make it out.

    • I saw it at a second run theater so you might be able to catch it cheap somewhere. If not I imagine it will be on DVD…getting too many Oscar noms to be confined to Blu-Ray (surely!) I’ll be interested in your reaction if you see it. It’s entertaining, but I thought the whiff of condescension kept it from being even better.

  2. I believe the Will Rogers’ movie Mr. Skitch, could be seen as a precursor to “trailer park” family depiction. Its gentle humor is unknown now and the people populating it are perhaps more like the Thousands who drifted west after losing their homes. I can’t help but wonder if they were the genesis of trailer communities. Their ramshackle camps were continually “swept out” by civil and uncivil authorities, but popped up elsewhere.
    They seemed indomitable then. Their premise is simple and similar: you do what you can or you give up.
    Like most of Rogers’ material it is solidly planted in the “common man” turf which Hollywood already owned, but his charisma was so powerfully genuine he could undercut the condescension at times and poke fun of his own kind or any sacred cow without stain.
    It’s amusing that even though it was the Depression era, the TP milieu was decidedly warm and friendly back then and often possesses a keen sense of order which the wider had world lost in 1914. They could remember an earth that was firmly under foot yet chose the freedom FROM “civilization” to being ground to urban grist.
    I’m enormously fond of Will and his incisive wit. And I do believe he proved you needn’t speak posh to demonstrate that wit. If Twain writ American wit it was Will who gave it a voice—-the only non-East Coaster to do so, anyway.
    No wonder Ford came as close to uncritical fondness for him as with anyone else.
    My writing is as rambly as the subject, sorry. But you made me actually want to see I, Tonya if only to relive that extraordinary period of skater mania.

    • April,

      I haven’t seen Mr. Skitch, but I do dream of a day when I can go back to the Will Rogers Museum in Oklahoma (I visited in 1996) with enough money in my pocket to buy all his available videos! I could get them elsewhere of course (and I have the films he did with Ford–all first-rate), but there would be something special about buying them there so I’m holding out hope!

      And when you see I, Tonya, I hope you’ll come back and give me your impression. Speaking of things lost, Trailer park or otherwise, I can’t imagine a starker juxtaposition than “the world as Will Rogers saw it” and the world as the makers of I, Tonya see it….I wouldn’t be surprised if they never heard of Will Rogers! But it’s a good movie with some great acting…just don’t go in thinking it’s gonna be easy to root for any of them…Not impossible, but not easy.


  3. I was born in Oklahoma (so was my dad) but never really knew who Will was until many years later, and thanks to Ford. If I ever get back to “home” I want to visit where he lived and, of course the museum.
    I have the box sets of his films that can out several years ago. There are still some titles I haven’t seen yet, though.
    I hope to have time this weekend to watch TV, maybe I can get to I, Tonya.

    • Well, you share a home state with Will Rogers and James Garner….can’t do better than that!

      My father was from east Tennessee and had a life long interest in all things Cherokee (and especially the famous chief John Ross, of course). Except to occasionally see family, that trip to OK was the last of many we took together and I’ve always wanted to recreate it. The highlights were the Rogers museum, Chief John Ross’s home (well, for us anyway!) and the Cowboy Hall of Fame (of which Will is a prominent member) in Ok City.

      The Cowboy Hall of Fame is now the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. I’m sure it’s still a wonderful place, but that name change reminds me of George Carlin’s old routine about how Shell Shock became Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It explains a lot about what’s wrong with us, alas….Just my humble opinion. “Cowboy” and “shell shock” are a little too direct I suppose.

      You’ve got me in the mood to see some Will Rogers movies…re-watching the Fords may hot be enough. I may not be able to wait on those DVDs after all!

  4. It feels strange for me to think about Ok in any other terms than of a place to visit family. I know little about where the Cherokee entered my father’s ancestry, he claimed any in him was too remote to count. But my uncle married a woman whose own mom was full-blood Cherokee. A tiny, smiling woman who always seemed serene. She only passed away recently in her 90s.

    I need to watch some Carlin, except for Carson reruns I haven’t seen enough recently. I could use some of his hilarious asperity.

    I feel the changes in every day language from vividly descriptive words to smug “terminology” run together neck-and-neck with the diminishment and anything human in the world.
    Both Will and Ford poked at this flaw in their work, and I often catch myself in it (I use way too many words ).

  5. Well, I’m familiar with using too many words! But we can grant ourselves this: We aren’t using them to control the air, or, as you put it the diminishment of “anything human in the world.”

    Carlin had at least two genius insights–his famous bit about baseball vs. football put me on to the notion that switching the national sport from one to the other was the way of empire and dissolution (he didn’t put it quite that way of course), and our “democratic” overlords Orwellian control of the language was gonna be the death of us all. I bet Ford would have loved him, even if he weren’t Irish!

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