NEW YORK — At no point in “I, Tonya” (Neon) is it clear whether the filmmakers are sympathetic to the plight of disgraced Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) or just want to make fun of both her and the peculiar, fleeting nature of fame.
That’s what makes this story so fascinating. No moral uplift is intended. This is the suffering that doesn’t create sainthood, but only lingering bitterness, and it’s presented as somehow very American.
Oregon-born Tonya, we see, has a million-dollar talent expressed through a 10-cent personality. She frequently quarrels with her coaches and skating judges, never accepting responsibility for anything. Repeatedly, the character addresses the camera to remind the audience, “This wasn’t my fault.”
Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers present a coarsening, numbing fusillade of domestic abuse and cursing. Occasionally this is broken up by ice skating routines which conform to the formula of a sports drama, and eventually the inept execution of a crime — the assault on Tonya’s rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) just before the 1994 Winter Olympics.
The rest of the time, Tonya is exploited, either by her chain-smoking, many-times-married mother LaVona (Allison Janney), feckless husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) or sleazy tabloid-TV producer Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale).
To this day, many see Harding as a hero because she entered competitive figure skating, in which the most marketable female athletes are made to appear as inaccessible, perpetually smiling fantasy ballerinas, from a hard-knocks blue-collar background.
She never adapted to this, either in her life or skating performances in homemade costumes. She remained the same chain-smoking, trash-mouthed hellion she came to think of as her destiny. As a high school dropout, she was only ever one fourth-place finish away from reprising her mother’s existence as a diner waitress.
Building Tonya’s self-esteem is never LaVona’s priority. She doesn’t know how to do anything other than inflict her anger, but she stubbornly spends her limited funds to get Tonya the aggressive coaching she needs to make it to national and international competitions.
Tonya had a singular athletic talent. She remains one of only three American women to execute a triple axel — a forward-facing jump with three rotations — in international competition, and she became the very first American woman to do so in 1991. The move is so difficult, and therefore so rare, that the film resorts to slow-motion special effects to show it. But it never explains how she came to learn it.
Competition eventually brings Tonya up against Nancy, considered the more stylish and therefore more nationally presentable of the two, and who bests Tonya for the U.S. Olympic Team in 1992 when a badly installed blade sends Tonya crashing to the ice during her final routine.
The decision to hold the Winter Olympics again in 1994 to start a new four-year cycle gives Tonya her dramatic second chance. Gillooly, by this time, has employed a particularly stupid and delusional bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who comes up the scheme to injure Kerrigan’s leg, thereby giving Tonya the opportunity she “deserves.” Justice arrives with well-calibrated speed after that.
Nothing in this film is pleasant, nor does a viewer get the sense of learning anything not previously known. The question of how much Tonya knew about the crime, and when she knew it, is presented as ambiguously as it was to law enforcement and Olympics officials in 1994.
Sometimes, stories don’t have morals. Tonya’s competition smile under the lights is merely a thin mask of makeup to cover anguish. Yet, her heart never breaks.
She’s an exemplar of stoicism. It’s just that she never seems to become any smarter.
The film contains pervasive scenes of domestic abuse, a nonexplicit scene of sexual activity, pervasive rough language and frequent profanities. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.