Tonya Harding was never supposed to be a pro figure skater. Like so many young American dreamers before her, she had it all wrong for success: born into the wrong class, raised by the wrong role model, drawn to the wrong men. And she had the wrong kind of femininity for the sport she loved, too, because those judges didn't want to see a ZZ Top routine from someone who sewed her own costume, even if it did include a flawlessly executed triple axel.
So when Harding did find a bit of glory, there were corrective measures in place, and her self-made undoing — by playing some part in the "hit" on U.S. rival Nancy Kerrigan's leg, the scandal that would unravel her career and the entire 1990s along with it — was the fitting, flaming end to her membership in the elite club that never wanted her anyway.
That is the argument put forth by I, Tonya, the cheeky and skate-sharp new biopic from director Craig Gillespie coming only a few short years after the ESPN documentary. The title tips us off that Harding's story — drawn from interviews with all the key players — has been rehabilitated into the stuff of tabloid Greek tragedy. This is a bold film, especially in its leveraging of all that real-life contradiction to create something that shocks and delights us with its own stylistic wrongness. I, Tonya takes greater risks with the biopic genre than any other in recent memory, and it's remarkable how much of it lands upright. It's the triple axel of based-on-a-true-story movies.
As played magnificently by Margot Robbie, Tonya is a powerhouse athlete, a fragile abuse victim, an impoverished country girl and a snarky media critic. Robbie embodies all these roles with a childlike sincerity, a lost-soul cluelessness, as her Tonya never ceases to wonder why it can't just be about the skating. She and the film whip among these personas with wild abandon, mixing styles and tones in a chaotic fashion that borders on overkill. (Must we indulge "present-day" interviews, voice-over AND talking directly to the camera?) But it all builds to a satisfying and illuminating portrait of a poor American girl who maybe never stood a chance.