Reviewed by: Jonathan Rodriguez
Universal human depravity and its effects on our world
Mother daughter relationships—when the mother is relentlessly mean-spirited
Parental abuse—emotional and physical
Abandonment by one’s father—the longterm ramifications and results
Abusive husbands and battered wives
Violence against a woman
What is SIN AND WICKEDNESS? Is it just “bad people” that are sinners, or are YOU a sinner? Answer
Are you good enough to get to Heaven? Answer
How good is good enough? Answer
Did God make the world the way it is now? What kind of world would you create? Answer
Margot Robbie … Tonya Harding
Sebastian Stan … Jeff Gillooly
Allison Janney … LaVona Golden
Julianne Nicholson … Diane Rawlinson
Paul Walter Hauser … Shawn
Bobby Cannavale … Martin Maddox
Bojana Novakovic … Dody Teachman
Caitlin Carver … Nancy Kerrigan
Maizie Smith … Tonya (3½ Yrs)
Mckenna Grace … Tonya (8-12 Yrs)
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|Director:||Craig Gillespie—“Lars and the Real Girl” (2007), “Fright Night” (2011), “The Finest Hours” (2016), “Million Dollar Arm” (2014), “Mr. Woodcock” (2007)|
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|Distributor:||Neon and 30West|
As Hollywood works its way through awards season and toward Oscar® night, movies that got a limited release at the end of 2017 are opening to wider audiences. That means more theaters are going to be making room for the year’s heavy hitters, and one of the heavy hitters coming to a theater near you is “I, Tonya.”
On the movie’s opening screen, we are told that “I, Tonya” is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” Tonya Harding, of course, is the (in)famous competitive figure skater from the 1990s who took the skating world by storm with talent and style never before seen on the ice. Her fall from grace, because of involvement in a plot to wound here chief competitor Nancy Kerrigan, was witnessed firsthand by people all over the world. The movie suggests that while we may think we know the details, and may have already rendered our judgment on Tonya Harding, the truth behind the story is really far more complex.
“I, Tonya” gives us a look at her life, from the time she started skating at 4-years old on through the events she will forever be associated with. Early on, we learn that Tonya’s father, with whom she had a strong relationship, left the picture and left the raising of Tonya to her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney). LaVona is a profane, chain-smoking, abusive sociopath who recognizes early on that little Tonya has a gift for ice skating.
She also recognizes that the worse she treats Tonya, the better Tonya skates. So, LaVona pulls no punches (literal or figurative) in her drive to see Tonya succeed. She forces young Tonya to continue skating despite the need to go to the bathroom (leading to an accident on the ice), beats Tonya with a hair brush in the skating-rink bathroom over other skating mishaps, verbally assaults her at every opportunity, and subjects Tonya to humiliation by forcing her to wear her skating outfit for school pictures. Despite (or, to LaVona, because of) this treatment, Tonya’s skills continue to grow, and go unmatched by anyone else at the rink.
In high school, Tonya (Margot Robbie) catches the eye of a young man named Jeff (Sebastian Stan) who hangs out at the skating rink with his buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Tonya and Jeff begin what is a rather innocent relationship at first—both people completely socially awkward. Tonya loves having someone who likes her and looks at her the way Jeff does. As the relationship progresses, the physical and verbal abuse begin. To Tonya, abuse is just a part of life, and while many times she falls victim to it, occasionally she fights back.
Jeff runs hot or cold, either doting on her with praise and affection or striking her with words and limbs. Tonya is frequently forced to cover up bruises with makeup before taking the ice for competitions. But the abuse doesn’t stop her from doing the one thing she is good at, and the thick skin (once again, both literal and figurative) she develops propels her passed skating judges and committees who don’t think Tonya fits the proper mold that figure skaters should fit. As her talent and fame continue to grow, and her relationship with Jeff becomes more turbulent, we continue to see how far the people around her are willing to go to see her succeed.
“I, Tonya” is rated R for “pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity.” The language is strong, explicit, and unrelenting throughout the movie. Characters speak to each other in awful ways and say terrible things. For those sensitive to verbal abuse, caution is definitely recommended. The same can be said for those sensitive to physical abuse, of which there is plenty. Mothers hit children, husbands hit wives, knives are thrown at people, a figure skater is attacked with a lead pipe, people are shot. The abuse scenes, though, are the most intense.
Tonya and Jeff are briefly seen a few times having sex, with real male nudity seen once. We see strippers in the background of a few scenes, topless except for the tassels they are wearing. And in one scene, Tonya’s stepbrother grabs her clothed breast while she is getting ready. The sexual abuse Tonya suffered in real life is very briefly alluded to in that scene, and once again, caution is recommended to viewers who may be very sensitive to that material. This film is definitely geared for mature adults. And while some Christian viewers will likely go to see it, I urge potential viewers to be very cautious and prayerfully decide whether the movie is right for them.
“I, Tonya” is told in a half movie, half documentary/E! “True Hollywood Story” kind of way. We get interviews with Tonya, her ex-husband Jeff, her mother LaVona, and few other characters. Sometimes they speak to the unseen interviewer, and sometimes they address the camera directly. Sometimes, in the middle of a scene being played like a traditional movie scene, a character will turn and directly address the camera while the other characters continue on with the scene. It’s an interesting, and surprisingly effective, way of telling what is already a fascinating story.
The storytelling style benefits from a cast that is stunningly good, each character played so true to form that by the time the credits roll and interviews with the real people are shown, you can’t help but be amazed. There have been more outstanding lead actress performances this year than I can remember there being in a very long time, but this performance by Margot Robbie deserves the gold medal. She embodies Harding in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen a real life character portrayed by an actor since Philip Seymour Hoffman became Truman Capote in “Capote.” Tonya Harding could have been played as a caricature, one deserving to be mocked, At first, I almost thought that was the direction this movie was taking. But Robbie brings an endearing authenticity to the role that softens some of Tonya’s perceived edges, and lets us see her as more of a human being and as less of a punch line. Allison Janney is also fantastic, for the opposite reasons. She lets all of LaVona’s sharp edges loose to inflict damage on anyone in her wake.
Sin ruins everything that should be beautiful. Why is the world the way it is? Answer
Universal human depravity (selfishness, lack of compassion and active love, abusiveness, etc.) and its effects on our world
They say there are two sides to every story, and “I, Tonya” gives us even more sides to the Tonya Harding story than I thought we would get, and more sides than we thought we knew. She isn’t let off of the hook and no excuses are made for her actions, but she isn’t demonized or mocked for them either. This movie shows us the story of a woman—abused as a child, pushed to the brink, elevated to the highest stage, and then cast aside with nothing but a name that stirs up anger in the minds of those who hear it mentioned. Hers is a sad tale of celebrity and cautionary to parents who try to force their children to greatness. As a movie, it’s at times funny, heartbreaking, shocking, and even a little optimistic. For those willing to sit through the objectionable content, a fascinating, incredibly-acted ride awaits you. But, it’s certainly not morally fantastic, and for anyone on the fence because of content (very bad language, violence, sex and nudity), I do not recommend this movie.
I was struck early on in “I, Tonya,” after Tonya’s father abandons her, with how deeply wounded she was. This isn’t something she admits; the scene of him leaving is sad, but not prolonged or referenced back to. But, every decision she makes from then on seems like a decision made by a little girl who just wants to be loved. She’s treated so terribly by her mother, that the first time someone seemingly nice comes along who shows interest in her, she dives in headfirst. And, when that relationship turns abusive, she holds on, often thinking she deserves to be treated that way. She also holds on because she believes Jeff loves her, and just has a different way of showing it. The good, no matter how brief, is worth it to a person who had never gotten a single kind word from her mother. But it all seemed to be Tonya trying to fill a void left early on by her father.
As Christians, we see people all around us trying to fill the deep voids in their souls with all sorts of things, some seemingly innocent, and others obviously destructive. Some of us have been in situations just like that. But, thanks to God the Father revealing it to us through His Spirit, we came to realize that the love and forgiveness and salvation offered through His Son Jesus is the only thing that can truly fill that void. Father-wounds cut very deeply, and this movie reminded me just how crucial the role of a father is in the lives of his children, and how that role can determine not only how the child goes on to live their life, but also how they will view God in the process.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.