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.