I, Tonya: an anti-heroine biopic of America’s suburbia

The setting of I, Tonya is suburban America during the 1980s, yet it feels like the 1970s, never in synch with the times and only with itself.

I, Tonya

If we wish to consider a successful film this season, it’s I,Tonya. It’s impossible to remain indifferent, because I,Tonya is witty, unsettling, moving, shocking. For two hours all of us are her: Tonya Harding, an ice skater who in 1991 won the national championship by being the first American female skater to complete a triple axel in a competition and who in 1994, right before the Lillehammer Olympic Games, was accused of wounding the leg of her arch-rival Nancy Kerrigan. 

Behind Harding’s sporting events there’s a hard, tremendous life. An abusive mother (LaVona, performed by Allison Janney, Oscar winner for this role), who violently forced Margot, the only daughter from her fourth, out of five, husbands, to begin skating (“You’re a monster. Get over it, kid”). Soon after, she gets married to a man who is literally “the first to arrive” and who, over time, proves to be violent and obsessive. Poverty, forced ignorance, total lack of grace. Still a child, Tonya shoots guns and, as a teenager, works at a body shop where she repairs cars and operates a forklift. Over time, despite her asthma and smoking, she becomes an excellent athlete. But she lacks what skating requires: a pretty face, a picture-perfect American family, elegance. “You don’t fit the image we’re looking for”. Outcast, forever. 


When the leading actress Margot Robbie, who is also the producer, read the script, she thought it was a brilliant work of fiction. But that’s not so: it’s all true. I,Tonya is a biopic that offers an obviously partial version of the events and “crimes”of Tonya Harding, but it’s also an accurate portrayal based on video interviews and statements by those who were involved. It’s quite amusing, after seeing the film, to look on Youtube for real videos of the events (competitions, interviews, performance costumes…) and enjoy how the story was recreated in great detail. It’s an immediate plunge into America’s suburbia from the 1980s and 1990s. 

I, Tonya, poster of the film directed by Craig Gillespie
I, Tonya, poster of the film directed by Craig Gillespie

Suburbia remains the cradle of the most interesting stories of this American movie season. Sacramento in Lady BirdThree Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, the outskirts of Disneyland in The Florida Project. In I, Tonyathere’s Portland, Oregon, north of north, where sports on ice are as natural as football is for Brazil. It’s a suburban America immersed in the 1980s which actually seem like the 1970s, never in synch with the times but only with itself. The interiors for the interviews are lovely: upholstery and sofas in beige and ochre paired with a mangy fur (LaVona), floral patterns on the walls inpendantwith an atrocious shirt (the trainer), a 1960s’ kitchen and frizzy hairdos, yet the kitchen hasn’t been touched in decades. Colours often in accord with the autumn exteriors of trees and forests.

A shabby atmosphere that is realer than reality, typical of American indie films that can stylishly render the simplicity of the settings in which the stories take place, ranging from Grey Gardens, the cult documentary on Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale, the aunt and cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and sophisticated high-society recluses in a run-down, flea-infested villa out in the Hamptons, amidst worn-out fur jackets and silk handkerchiefs.

Tonya, on the set
Tonya, on the set

The film also involves recent biopics, like My Week With Marilynwith Michelle Williams, Jackie with Natalie Portman, The Iron Lady on Margaret Thatcher with Meryl Streep, The Queenon Queen Elizabeth II with Helen Mirren. The biopic is also an important feat for actors, especially when they portray public figures or even icons and imitation becomes necessary, in recreating accents, or cadences, or movements of the body. In this case, Tonya Harding isn’t so well known to the public and this leaves Margot Robbie free to be beautiful in her looks without claiming to offer a photocopy of the real Tonya Harding, though she perfectly captured her strength, inelegance, anger.

The attentiveness found on the set and in the costume design as well as the acting imbues the film in all aspects. The editing is exciting, bearing pathos and humour. The directing seems to draw inspiration from ice skating with constant, sinuous, track shots, as if the movie camera were skating, not only in the sports scenes but in every shot, almost as if to make figure skating omnipresent, day after day, in the life of the protagonist, a young girl whose world revolves around skating; it’s the only thing she knows how to do and would be lost without it. In fact, she finished paying her lawyer’s fees by boxing. The movie camera makes us skate in the recesses of an edgy sports scandal in the life of an anti-heroine that won only once, and maybe not even then.

Film title:
I, Tonya
Director:
Craig Gillespie
Country:
USA
Year:
2017
Production:
Clubhouse Pictures (II), LuckyChap Entertainment

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