AFF: 'I, Tonya' is a Brutally Honest Comedy

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One of my favorite movies of the year is I, Tonya, a brutal biopic about the disgraced Olympic athlete Tonya Harding who was eaten alive by tabloids after her alleged involvement in the assault of her competitor Nancy Kerrigan.

I, Tonya is a story about how we remember things, both as individuals and as an audience. Tonya is a character who is haunted by her past at every step, crippled by low self-worth due to years of abuse and neglect from her parents and husband. Yet while Tonya’s history informs so much of her identity, what one remembers and what actually happened can be two different things. Screenwriter Steven Rogers reminds us of this by showing the different perspectives of several key figures in Tonya’s life by having characters break the fourth wall in the middle of a scene or cutting to a documentary style interview sequence with the characters set 30 years after the fact.

Tonya posits herself as a victim of everyone else’s bad decisions, which she very well may be, but this narrative is in opposition to everything printed about Harding thus far. The film doesn’t necessarily suggest Tonya is a hero, but it grants her the empathy that journalists and judges never did. With this observation, I, Tonya highlights the more far-reaching social issue with memory, which is how bad faith and exaggeration have come to rule the 24 hours news cycle and pervade public consciousness. After watching the movie at Austin Film Fest, I had a fascinating conversation with another woman in line for the next movie who said that all this time, she thought that Tonya Harding was caught red-handed assailing Nancy Kerrigan with a baseball bat. That is… categorically wrong for many reasons, yet this was a common enough misconception that the film, I, Tonya even mentions it explicitly in one comedic gag.  

Another thing I, Tonya does with disturbing honesty is portray the cycle of abuse between Tonya and both her mother and her husband later on. Don’t get me wrong: this film is still definitely a comedy. It’s just not a comedy that wants to make you feel good. Many of the gags include sequences of domestic violence choreographed like physical comedy, or shallow tabloid-style digs about Tonya’s appearance, class, and overall character, or best of all, Allison Janney’s incredible deadpan narcissism. And, of course there are a few knee bashing jokes thrown in as well that will make you laugh and immediately feel bad about it.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about I, Tonya since seeing it Austin Film Festival. Margot Robbie, who produced the film in addition to starring in it, director Craig Gillepsie, and writer Steven Rogers accomplished an incredible feat turning a sensationalist media scandal into a sort of redneck Sophoclean tragedy. It’s one of the greatest calls for empathy I’ve seen in a single film in a long time, and I can’t recommend it enough as you decide what movie to see this weekend.