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SKATE OR DIE: ‘I, TONYA’ — Berrics Film Society

WORDS: Stu Gomez

The new Craig Gillespie film, I, Tonya, is the long-overdue black comedy bio-pic treatment of the Harding-Kerrigan saga, one that is inherently darkly comic and revolves around the kneecapping that Nancy Kerrigan received during practice courtesy of Team Harding’s motley crew. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a sad thing that happened but it was also kind of hilarious, in a Joey Buttafuoco, or, you know, John Bobbitt way. Even more so in retrospect. The film attempts to give some clarity about the scandalous goings-on of the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, it does so by telling Tonya’s story. Her upbringing has a backbone of violence that will make the viewer think, Well, of course that shit happened—look at how she was raised. 

For those of you who lived through that news cycle (which slightly predated the OJ “white Bronco” chase), the event may still be clear in your memory. The actual players may be a bit fuzzy so here’s a basic breakdown: Tonya Harding was a top figure skater, and Kerrigan was her sometime rival. (Check out ESPN’s stellar "30 For 30" for more detailed background.) After Kerrigan was assaulted, investigations revealed four accomplices who were linked to Harding. Chief among these assailants is one Jeff Gillooly. Surely, you’ve heard of Gillooly… Gillooly is typically used a verb, as in to “physically harm an athlete so as to impair their competitive abilities.” When Giovanni Reda used to roam the Berrics halls, this was one of his favorite terms. I can still hear Reda’s brusque Brooklyn accent as he joked about someone being Gillooly’d (somehow it just sounded right coming out of Reda’s mouth).

The wide, wide world of sports on the whole was very weird in the ‘90s. Buster Douglas was knocking out Tyson (and Tyson was munching on ear cartilage). Dennis Rodman got ahold of some Manic Panic, along with enough lip rings to hold up a standard shower curtain, and became known as much for his babydoll dresses as for his rebounding skills. And then there was OJ, who was definitely not the sharpest knife in the drawer. (OJ has experienced a renaissance in 2017, figuring prominently in the wonderfully exploitative “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” limited series.)

SKATE OR DIE: 'I, TONYA' -- Berrics Film Society

Margot Robbie. Image courtesy NEON.

I, Tonya stars the not-quite-right-for-the-role Margot Robbie as the titular character, with a pitch-perfect Allison Janney as her mom. The intense, abusive relationship between Tonya and her mom, Lavona, serves as the foundation for the story; every element of I, Tonya hinges on continuous gut-wrenching physical and emotional torment. Janney fully lives the role of Lavona and she makes you squirm in a way that is very Mommie Dearest. She has a few stellar Faye Dunaway moments—shocking moments of physical violence which she treats as commonplace—setting the stage early on in a scene where she forces Tonya to keep practicing on the ice even though Tonya needs to pee. Of course, the bladder wins, and Lavona simply says, “Skate wet.”

 SKATE OR DIE: 'I, TONYA' -- Berrics Film Society

Allison Janney. Image courtesy NEON.

We watch Tonya grow into someone who can give as good as she gets. By her teen years, she is a force to be feared—equal parts stubborn and eager to please. You’re drawn into her pain and begin to root for her, even though you’re fully aware of what comes down the road. Her triumphant montage of her winning throughout the ‘90-’91 figure skating seasons is tempered somewhat our knowledge of what happens in 1994. The film uses confessional-style dialogue and fourth-wall breaking corniness that detracts quite a bit from the humor, as if Gillespie is actually trying to wring the movie dry of all its humor. One of I, Tonya’s training montages goes overboard with this cliched tool, turning something silly and fun into a grinding drag.

But back to the centerpiece. The “masterminds” (I use this term loosely) of the infamous Kerrigan attack are Tonya’s ex-husband Gillooly and his delusional buddy Sean Eckhart. Eckhart plays a delusional middleman who coordinates with two long-distance “hitmen” to do the deed. (According to the endearingly arrogant Eckhart, he has “operatives” all over the world.) Gillooly is painted as an accomplished wife-beater in flashbacks, continuing a cycle of abuse that Harding has endured throughout her life. This is a movie that pulls the usual focus from Kerrigan as the victim of this bizarre attack, and instead adds layers of insight into Tonya’s struggles. But we soon learn that domestic violence is just the tip of the iceberg—Tonya’s biggest fight is with the hoity-toity motherfuckers who judge her on the ice. She doesn’t fit the mold. After all, her small town Pacific Northwest upbringing, in the shadow of Mt. Hood, isn’t exactly that of your storybook princesses.

There are numerous set pieces that showcase Tonya’s skating prowess, and what she can do on the ice is incredibly impressive (although the subpar CGI of Margot Robbie’s face on a body double is very distracting). Unfortunately, her achievements in competition are tempered by her perceived low-class fashion sense, music choices, and all-around improper manners. (She came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass—and she’s all out bubblegum.) Even though her skill is exemplary—she really is a natural on the ice—Tonya rarely gets the scores she thinks she deserves. In one scene, this drives her to confront a judge post-competition in order to plead with him for fair treatment. When he confirms what she had always suspected, Tonya delivers the movie’s most solid line, one that will resonate with skateboarders all over the world: “Why can’t it just be about the skating?” Damn. 

Tonya Harding’s story, specifically in the realm of her figure skating career, has a surprising analogue with skateboarding. Skateboarders have been fetishizing the ‘90s ever since the ‘00s, but you’re not a true ‘90s fanatic if you don’t know the story of Tonya Harding. Tonya is the epitome of a badass skater of that decade. I, Tonya really could double as a movie about skateboarding. Aside from all of the delicious soundbites, one of Tonya’s chief struggles is the battle between form and function (an eternal issue in skateboarding) that logically—at least to her—has no place in figure skating. Why does it matter whether she’s wearing a $5,000 skating costume? She can do a fucking triple!

Sadly, I, Tonya could also serve as a commentary on the reflexive excuses that come out of skaters’ mouths. More often than not, we’re salty and proud to be rough around the edges. In the second act, this was dealt with masterfully as Tonya went through a dry spell, slamming over and over again doing tricks she usually lands easily. (Ahem.) She immediately calls out her broken blade and swears that it was never repaired correctly, but the quick montage of her piling out between matches—drinking, smoking, and gorging on pizza—tells a different story. (She’s 100% skater.) Even her climactic performance at the ‘94 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer is laden with excuses (this time her shoelace isn’t cooperating). The message here is that we’re all capable of landing shit. But when you aren’t landing shit, don’t whine about it. In the movie, Tonya is portrayed as someone who is quick to point the finger at anything or anyone else in the face of adversity (her favored term is “It’s not my fault!”)—she simply crumbles. Being a skateboarder, these moments were by far the most painful to watch. I, Tonya is an icy version of the perpetual struggles that skateboarders face. So sharpen your blades and get ready for Tokyo 2020, but don’t be surprised if there are a few Gillooly jokes leading up to the skateboarding portion of Olympic Games—it’s just our way of breaking the ice.

Berrics rating: 4 kneecaps

SKATE OR DIE: 'I, TONYA' -- Berrics Film Society

I, Tonya is in theatres now.

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