“I, Tonya” works when it focuses on its title character

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The Tonya Harding scandal happened a little bit before my time. I wasn’t really part of the media outcry, the controversy, and the public shaming revolving around the moment the Olympic skater allegedly attacked her competitor, Nancy Kerrigan. But I do feel like it’s one of those things that’s always lodged in American pop culture. Tonya Harding was a name that I’ve heard many times, even years after the event. And “being a Jeff Gillooly” was a common enough phrase that I’ve heard it more than once.

“I, Tonya” had the option of being cinematic tabloid journalism. The director and others could have taken advantage of a controversial topic to spin voyeuristic gold. But “I, Tonya” has higher aspirations than that. Instead, it’s a deeply empathetic, righteously angry film that points the finger at the audience, implicating them in being caught up in the media storm that unfairly ruined an innocent woman’s career. If only the movie remembered these aspirations more often.

Craig Gillespie takes a page from the “Goodfellas” school of filmmaking by including energetic camerawork, fourth wall breaks, a pseudo-documentary story, and wall-to-wall pop music. It’s a style that has rarely worked outside of Scorsese’s own filmography and the occasional “Boogie Nights.” Its application here is hit-or-miss. There are times when this energy really makes the film come to life. For example, the ice skating sequences are beautifully filmed, with the camera gliding across the rink like a skater. The long tracking shots and energetic camera movements work for more than just visual flash: in these moments, we get why Harding was so obsessed with skating.

However, when the film tries its hand at meta fiction, the results are decidedly mixed. Viewers should consider that the true story is widely contested and running with it is an inspired one. Yet the film provides the story with some pretty interesting insights into the various characters’ minds. For example, when viewers see Jeff Gillooly in the future stating that he’s a “pretty meek” guy, then the film switches to the past when he was a violent abuser, adds some dimension to the idea that he thinks he’s just a “nice guy.”

However, the fourth wall breaks never work. Margot Robbie’s narration does a fine job of weaving the plot together, but whenever that narration is interrupted by a quick aside to the camera, “Wolf of Wall Street” style, it does more to undercut the emotion of the scene rather than enhancing it. The worst example happens when Harding quips to the camera immediately after a pretty harrowing scene of domestic abuse. Say what you will about “Goodfellas,” but it took the pain its characters felt pretty seriously.

This emotional schizophrenia is unfortunate because when “I, Tonya” wants you to feel for its protagonist, it is incredibly effective. As I witnessed Harding’s life collapsing around her, I felt empathy but also anger. Anger for both the horrible nature of the people around her and the way she was treated by the media.

The film’s irreverent and bleak sense of comedy starts to work in its favor. The dark comedy brings a bitter sense of perspective to the whole situation, making us consider Harding’s’s life in relation to our own. It’s funny, sure, but mostly because there’s a kernel of truth in how she was exploited. This film, more than anything, is a call for truth in a deluge of noise. And that call for truth is what manages, finally, to take a tabloid story from the 1990s and present it to the 21st century with a renewed relevance.

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