In Theaters

Being the best at what we do is something to which many of us aspire. With great heart, tremendous determination, a plucky attitude and our own brand of innovation, we forge ahead as we strive to surmount that pinnacle of success. But is it possible for those efforts to be excessive or get out of hand? Under conditions like that, our aims may become skewed, perhaps even turning counterproductive, no matter how ardent our passion or how steely our resolve. Such is the case in the new, fact-based dark comedy, “I, Tonya” (web site, trailer).

Told largely through a skillfully edited mix of insightful monologues and revelatory flashbacks, the film tells the often-comic, satirically tragic biography of figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who attained a number of accomplishments on the ice but is perhaps best known for an explosive off-rink scandal that fueled tabloid headlines for months.

The ups and downs of figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) spin a compelling story as detailed in the new, fact-based biopic, “I, Tonya.” Photo courtesy of Neon and 30West.

Beginning in childhood, the picture follows the life of a young Tonya (Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace) as she hones her talents under the skillful training of coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). But, in stark contrast to the artistry Tonya was developing on the ice, the emerging star also had to contend with the harsh conditions of her home life, circumstances characterized by financial strife and incessant physical and verbal abuse. She was constantly under the thumb of her beastly, controlling mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), a snarly, foul-mouthed, embittered waitress who routinely pummeled and chastised Tonya for the slightest of infractions when not embroiled in expletive-laden quarrels with her husband (Jason Davis).

Given her hard life off the ice, Tonya developed a somewhat thick skin and something of an edge, qualities that became reflected in her skating. While many of Tonya’s peers aspired to live up to the stereotypical ultra-feminine attributes long associated with the sport, she developed her own style, one characterized by skating programs set to heavy metal music and costuming punctuated by blue nail polish. She also exhibited a greater athleticism than many of her competitors. But, while these innovations set her apart, they failed to impress competition judges, most of whom were looking for a more traditional presentation, one characterized by more conventional (i.e., more demure) qualities. Such displeasure was reflected in the scores Tonya earned in competition (despite the technical strength of her performances), which, in turn, would invariably bring out LaVona’s wrath, generally prompting severe verbal onslaughts (if not more).

Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, right), husband of figure skater Tonya Harding, concocts a scheme to advance her career with her doltish bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser, left), in the new dark comedy, “I, Tonya.” Photo courtesy of Neon and 30West.

Meanwhile, on the ice, Tonya sought to find new ways to distinguish herself, a move aimed at leveling the playing field and silencing the small-minded critics who claimed she didn’t play the princess role well enough. She decided to make an attempt at being the first woman to land a triple axel jump in competition, an exceedingly difficult program element involving three-and-a-half revolutions. If she were to perform it successfully, that would surely make her a stand-out – and shut up the naysayers – an accomplishment Tonya attained at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championship, where she emerged the winner.

With her grand achievement behind her, Tonya suddenly became skating’s “it” girl, despite her less-than-conventional style. She was now being touted as a hot contender for the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. But, given a disappointing performance at the Winter Games and too many domestic distractions off the ice, she seemed to have missed her chance. This, coupled with allowing herself to fall out of shape, she quickly seemed to become a skating has-been at the age of 21. However, with a shortened two-year time frame before the next Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway and the encouragement of coach Rawlinson, Tonya was talked into making a run at the 1994 Winter Games.

LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), the beastly, overbearing mother of figure skater Tonya Harding, seeks to control every aspect of her daughter’s life in the dark new biopic, “I, Tonya.” Photo courtesy of Neon and 30West.

There was just one problem: Tonya would have to contend with the competition posed by skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), whose star was quickly rising after earning a bronze medal at the Albertville Games. Ironically, the two were actually fast friends, but, when it came to competition, those bonds would become strained. And, in the months ahead, Tonya would find that “strain” wouldn’t even begin to describe what was about to go down.

What happened next stunned the skating community and the world at large when Kerrigan was brutally attacked after finishing practice before the U.S. nationals in Detroit. An assailant surprised her off the ice, clubbing her with a baton just above the knee. That assailant would turn out to be Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), an attacker hired by Gillooly and Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), Tonya’s inept, dimwitted bodyguard, who delusionally fancied himself a covert spy master and intelligence operative. The plan called for Stant to break Kerrigan’s leg to keep her from competing in Lillehammer, but, as events played out, she suffered only a severe bruise, one that would heal up in time for the Winter Games.

With Kerrigan sidelined, Harding won the U.S. Championship and a spot on the Olympic squad. However, despite this victory, her star was tainted as rumors began to circulate. Even though Tonya claimed to have no knowledge of the scheme, the event nevertheless stuck to her like glue thanks to guilt by association, quickly leading to the launch of an FBI investigation. And the firestorm set off by the attack and its fallout would occupy headlines for a long time afterward, with consequences that followed the fallen star for years after stepping off the ice.

Almost no one would criticize someone for having ambition, but, when such drive turns a blind eye to everything that could potentially accompany it, we run the risk of setting ourselves up for major trouble. In Tonya’s case, one could argue that her ambition was characterized by an attitude of succeeding at almost any cost. Given her troubled upbringing, marriage and competition experience, Harding’s desire for recognition and acceptance could well have been a powerful motivation, adding fuel to the skater’s drive for success. But those qualities can easily become a volatile combination, particularly if one pays no heed to the potential fallout, especially if that involves ignoring the efforts of others supposedly acting on our behalf. Tonya’s story is thus a cautionary tale well taken to heart.

Figure skating coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson, left) watches her star pupil, Tonya Harding, during one of her performances in the compelling new biopic, “I, Tonya.” Photo courtesy of Neon and 30West.

Handily one of the year’s best, “I, Tonya” seethes with its richly macabre humor, which relentlessly comes at viewers in a variety of forms, be it through the characters’ monologues, the actions taking place on screen or the players’ snarky asides delivered directly to the audience in the midst of the mayhem playing out around them. The film features superb performances across the board, especially Robbie and Janney, both of whom turn in award-worthy performances. With a kick-ass soundtrack, impeccable editing, excellent writing and a spot-on narrative, the film carries the day in virtually every regard. To be sure, sensitive viewers may be offended by some of the language and violence, but both are properly balanced and in context. If you like your comedies with an edge, rush to see this one.

“I, Tonya” has been deservedly rewarded in this year’s awards competitions. The film picked up a Golden Globe Award for Janney’s outstanding supporting performance and two additional nods for best comedy picture and best comedy actress (Robbie). The film also earned two Critics Choice Awards for supporting actress and best actress in a comedy, with additional nominations for best actress, comedy and hair/makeup. On top of that, the picture has also captured two Screen Actors Guild Award nods (Robbie, Janney), five BAFTA Award nominations (actress, supporting actress, original screenplay, costume design, hair/makeup) and three Independent Spirit Award nominations (actress, supporting actress, editing), with more honors likely to come. I’d be thrilled to see this offering take home a lot of this hardware, as it’s a release truly worthy of it.

Aiming for the stars is undoubtedly a laudable goal, one that can help us see – and realize – our potential. But, in the process, we need to keep our eyes open during the course of our ascent, looking around us to determine that we’re on the right path and don’t draw undue problems to us along the way. Should we do so, we’re likely to nab our own gold medals as a result, honors that we genuinely earn – and needn’t worry about ever becoming tarnished.

A full review is available by clicking here.

Movies with Meaning Goes Live on Video! 

Join host Frankie Picasso and me for the premiere video edition of Movies with Meaning on Frankiesense & More on The Good Media Network this Thursday, January 18 at 1 pm ET. We’ll discuss a number of new movie releases and other film-related news. Tune in here for some lively movie talk!

The Year’s Best – and Worst – at the Movies

It was an interesting year at the movies, but which ones were the best (and worst) in 2017? Find out by checking out my lists of the top 10 and bottom 10 (along with a few honorable and dishonorable mentions), by reading my web site’s blog post, “The Best and Worst of 2017,” by clicking here.

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