A Discussion of I, Tonya

Tulpa writers Liam McNally and Lisandra Linde went along to see I, Tonya. We went with plenty of expectations but the filmmakers seemingly went out of their way to shatter them. Consequently, we decided a discussion, rather than a review, would best suit this film.

 

Firstly, the film has no major stars outside of Margot Robbie and Allison Janney (known to many for her tenure in hit TV series The West Wing). So, what did we make of the cast and performance?

Lisandra: I felt the casting of Tonya and her mother LaVona were spot on. Margot Robbie managed to play into the dark comedy of the film, especially through her over the top anger against the skating judges. But she balanced it with equal shows of how difficult Tonya’s situation was and how her underdog story didn’t follow the rags-to-riches storyline she wanted, but rather, was hampered by the people around her and (though she denies it) herself.

Allison Janney really captured the essence of Harding’s mother – from start to finish, she shows us a woman who is selfish, emotionally abusive, rude and generally destructive towards the people around her. And yet she is only somewhat aware of her cruelty – truly believing that what she did was the best thing for her daughter. The key moment being when she says (during the acted interviews) ‘Oh please, show me a family that doesn’t have its ups and downs’ – this right after we see her throw a knife at her daughter.

Liam: Janney’s LaVona could not have been further from the together, wise, and controlled figure of CJ, her character on The West Wing. Her commitment to the role appears absolute as she exhibits extreme emotional, physical, and psychological abuse on her daughter and in mockumentary-style interviews, denies some of what we have seen and attempts to contextualise it differently.

Robbie’s Tonya is by turns aggressor, victim, bystander, and everything in between. The film seems to seek to neither condemn nor condone the real Harding and so we are left with a quandary. She is ultimately compelling in how thorough and complex a person she creates.

Seeing the real individuals interviewed at the end drives home even more strongly just how accurately the real people have been captured and that whatever your original motives for watching the film, you must remember these are real people.

 

At the risk of spoilers, there’s a scene that must be talked about. During the mockumentary-style interviews, Tonya takes aim at her abusers: her mother (who denies it), her husband (who denies it), and those who made her a joke, a punchline, and a freak to be gawped at.

Liam: The advertising for the film suggested to me that I was going to see a dark comedy, a kind of ‘tragi-comedy’. I can’t deny the humour of the film but the film was far more hard-hitting and daring than I anticipated. In that moment of Tonya decrying those who made her into a joke as abusers, it’s as though she addresses the audience in order to ask us if we went for the right reasons. And did we? Were we lured in by very smart advertising to have this moment put before us? Are we complicit?

I can’t think of any other film that has made me consider myself so directly as a filmgoer, as a person, so much as this.

Lisandra: I think that the trailers kind of played into the kind of media-saturated ideas most people have about the incident and Tonya but then the movie goes completely away from that and shows a very sympathetic and complex side to everything.

 

Finding the truth in the film is a hard task, as we are provided with a host of contradictory and clearly unreliable narrators.

Lisandra: I think that the really blunt way they addressed the violence and abuse helped to build up a kind of empathetic trust for Tonya but at the same time made it evident that she was becoming really fucked up from it, thus making her less reliable as a narrator.

Liam: This is a film full of people giving changing, contradictory, and self-serving stories. Quite how violent LaVona was, how brutal Tonya’s husband, or how unfair the situations outside of her control were, Tonya feels like a real person, and no real person will ever tell the whole truth.

 

What other impressions were we left with at the film’s end?

Lisandra: I love the contrast between the ugliness of Tonya’s (violent and redneck) life with the glamour and superficiality of the ice skating world (in which Tonya’s inability to conform to their standards of ‘presentation’ makes her a constant underdog).

The fact that Tonya’s skills are overshadowed by things she cannot control – like having a background of poverty, an abusive mother, and none of the glitzy costumes and smiley personas of her competitors – really forces us to consider the way in which we, as a society, push down women who do not fit neatly into their assigned roles.

Liam: It was an extremely reflective film, both for the characters and, I believe, for the audience. What role do we play in tearing down people like Tonya Harding? And why do we do it? The film draws you in with controversy (the kneecapping of Nancy Kerrigan) and traps you in a film of questions about America’s (and the world’s) attitudes towards class, gender, and appearance.

There was no distinct ‘truth’ the film pushed. It accommodated for many views and many truths. I think Tonya is right when she stands up, bruised and bloodied, and says, ‘and that’s the fucking truth’.


Words by Liam McNally & Lisandra Linde.

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