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“I, Tonya”: Giving an American Villain Her Own Perspective

By Lindsey DeRoche; A&E Editor
On February 11, 2018

The dynamic of victim and villain is a familiar trope within art, whether it be in films, plays, literature and so on. It is human nature (for most of us) to root for the protagonist, to align ourselves with the underdog who is on the “good” side of the story. However, it is also human nature to be intrigued by the psychology behind the transgressors who have been deemed “the bad guys.”

This yearning to understand the motives behind a villainized character is what fuels the dark comedy-infused, embellished biopic “I, Tonya.” The film, which is directed by Craig Gillespie, chronicles the life of infamous Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding. Harding (played by Margot Robbie) is widely known for both the skill she showcased during the Olympics of the early 1990s, as well as the scandal in which her ex-husband’s associate clubbed the kneecap of her competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, right before the 1994 Winter Olympics in an attempt to sabotage her.

Harding, who has long served as a condemned figure in the public eye, finally receives her own point of view in this film, which is shot as though Harding and her family and ex-trainer are all taking part in their own documentary about Harding’s career. For instance, the film will shift from Robbie being “interviewed” as Harding in her kitchen before the scene cuts to Robbie’s portrayal of her in the past.

The biopic starts all the way back during Harding’s life as a toddler in the early 1970s. Immediately, it is established that she grew up in a poverty-stricken, lower class socioeconomic strata within her native Portland, Oregon. The film portrays her mother as both physically and verbally abusive, seeming to only value Harding for her natural aptitude for ice skating.

Harding’s father quickly abandons the family, and eventually, Harding drops out of high school to pursue her ice skating career. Despite her obvious talent for a sport she loves, she does not seem to have anything else “going for her.” She marries one of the first men to show an interest in her (the almost equally as infamous Jeff Gillooly), who quickly turns just as abusive as Harding’s mother.

The film follows Harding’s life all the way to the infamous assault of fellow ice skater Nancy Kerrigan (which the characters refer to as “the incident”), how she deals with the consequences of her role in the attack and her life following it.

Robbie plays Harding with a sincerity that is immensely believable. Her performance, whether on or off the ice, definitely lends itself to illustrating Harding as a three dimensional character with emotions, aspirations, disadvantages and flaws. Robbie allows us to relate to a tough, rough-and-tumble-acting young woman who harbors a simultaneous internal sensitivity, and just wants love, acceptance and success like the rest of us. 

Though “I, Tonya” is riddled with darkness and heavy subject matter, it somehow manages to walk a tactful line of dark humor. The film delicately presents both heaviness and levity in a way that is neither completely depressing, nor irreverent.

This film is definitely an entertaining one, with its dry humor, occasional breaking of the fourth wall and how it allows America to finally take a look at Harding’s background, her “side of things.” However, the biopic is also one that makes a viewer think and contemplate what kind of capacity for human empathy is available for someone who has been branded a “villain.”

As a viewer, even being aware of the eventual scandal to ensue, I couldn’t help but sympathize with Harding. On multiple occasions, I found myself thinking, “What she and her ex-husband did was wrong, but this girl had absolutely no chance in the first place.”

Let me be clear, “I, Tonya” does not absolve Harding of anything. Nancy Kerrigan was the victim of assault at the hands of those close to Harding. There is no excuse for that, even if someone comes from an unfortunate and dismal background/personal life. Still, no person is just one thing or one poor decision, one mistake. Human beings are amorphous, intricate and inherently flawed.

“I, Tonya” is a phenomenally-acted, well-written film that gives audiences a different lens to look at a demonized celebrity, and is extremely entertaining to watch at the same time.

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