Film Review – I, Tonya (2017)

I Tonya

People don’t always know this about me, but I used to figure skate. I quit in university, so no one I’ve met since then knows that I skated. It’s not really a part of my life anymore. But for a long time, it was a significant part of my identity.

I saw I, Tonya at TIFF last year and it bucked my expectations in the best way. It illuminated so much about the attack and about Tonya Harding as a person. Before I quit, figure skating meant a lot to me. I was so obsessed with it that even when I wasn’t skating, I was watching and taping skating competitions.

The Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident is something remember – albeit I was 8 so my memory is hazy. It probably caught my attention back then because I was so immersed in skating. That’s why I picked up my mom and grandmother’s copies of People and Star magazines. (I was 8 years old and also starting my life-long obsession with gossip rags and pop culture.) Reading about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan horrified me, as it absolutely should. Imagine minding your own business and having a random stranger smashing you on the leg with a crowbar. It’s awful. After all the drama, I remember Nancy’s return to skating. But I don’t really remember what happened to Tonya. I remember when she started boxing. But there wasn’t much information about her available. Unless she was a punch line, she kind of disappeared.

I totally didn’t know that she was such a fierce competitor. I was mildly shocked when the film told me she was the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition. For the uninitiated, this is a huge deal. Axels are the most difficult jump in a skater’s repertoire. Because you take off from a front outside edge, there’s an extra half rotation required to land on a backward outside edge on the other foot. It took me over a year of constant practice to be able to land a single axel consistently. A triple axel is the hardest jump for female skaters – biologically, it’s just takes more effort for women to get the power and the height needed to complete three and a half rotations. That’s why only a handful of women have completed them in competition. Being the second woman to land a triple axel makes Harding a competitive force – and yet I had no idea.

I also had no idea that she experienced so much abuse. I was expecting more of a straight drama, so I was surprised that the film broke the fourth wall and had unconventional storytelling edits. It was so jarring at first that I wasn’t sure that I was going to like it. But it was so unexpectedly funny that I was drawn into it.

But it was also a lot darker than I expected. Really dark. One minute you’re laughing at Allison Janney’s brash attempts at getting Tonya a coach, the next you’re watching her send 8-year-old Tonya reeling across the kitchen after kicking her chair. One minute you’re laughing at Tonya telling an uppity judge to “suck [her] dick”, the next you’re watching her mother throw a dinner knife at her.

So I understand why some people may not like the film. They definitely use humour to lull you before hitting you (sorry) with graphic depictions of domestic violence. Critics of the film feel like this jarring technique entices the audience to laugh at Tonya. And while there were definitely assholes in both screenings I went to laughing at those scenes, I’m not sure that’s the intended outcome.

I think what it does is make people feel uncomfortable by giving them such a frank look at domestic violence, but the movie really nails how destructive and harmful it is. At first these slaps and smacks are upsetting, but eventually they become par for the course and suddenly you’re used to it, like Tonya. It can become such a regular occurrence that maybe hearing your partner talk about “scaring” someone else doesn’t raise red flags. But the film also shows how fast violence can escalate – first with Jeff confronting Tonya with a gun and then the attack on Nancy.

I’m not trying to say that what happened to Nancy Kerrigan isn’t terrible and horrifying because it is both those things. But regardless of whether or not Harding knew anything about the attack, to me the film shows how much impact domestic abuse has on the victim and society. Violence begets violence. People who beat their wives probably don’t have much of a problem hurting someone else. So I’m not so sure that using humour in a film that also depicts domestic violence encourages people to not take the topic seriously. Life is both funny and tragic. One doesn’t overshadow the other or make tragic moments not upsetting.

But other than sound handling of such a dark topic, there was a bright spot. It was refreshing to see figure skating finally portrayed as the engaging, thrilling, aggressive sport it actually is. I’m used to figure skating being portrayed as very bougie in film. I mean I get why – it’s marketed to the world like classical ballet.

Aside from the gains we’ve made in the technical aspects of skating, it’s still not that much different from the way I remember the sport in the 90’s. The same type of music is used (classical-type pieces from ballets, musicals, operas, films, and sometimes jazz) with the same type of costumes (sheer and frilly and with sequins) and it’s so boring.

It’s also old fashioned because of its adherence to convention. Yes, you can use whatever music and theme you want, but you need to have certain technical elements in your competitive programs. Like, for example, skaters would have to include a footwork sequence, a spiral sequence, a certain amount of jumps and jump combinations, etcetera.

But even doing the technical aspects isn’t enough because there is always, always a presentation aspect. This is where the sport, I think, loses its objectivity. Presentation is so subjective. Why do you have to look and skate like a Disney princess to get the best scores? What defines skating for you may not be what it means to be. And that’s the issue I’ve always had with figure skating – it’s not enough to be a tough competitor, you also have to portray a certain image.

I learned that the hard way when I started competing. I hated competing. I always got too nervous. And it didn’t help that the atmosphere between skaters was always frosty at best. Figure skating is an expensive sport and my parent’s didn’t always have the money to buy me new costumes, so I relied on second-hand outfits from skating stores. And there were comments and looks. Skating can be a pay-to-play sport. You need to “look good” according to their regulations. There were notes from the club about the brands of tights we should buy to how our hair was supposed to look (tightly pulled back in a bun or a ponytail). You also needed to be seen a lot. I get that if you want to compete you need to show up, but competitions can be expensive when there’s an entry fee, required costumes, and travel expenses. Not everyone can do enough competitions so that your name is recognized by judges.

The skating world isn’t as fair as other sports. There are too many subjective factors involved as well as expectations and regulations that can hold back skaters that don’t project the right image. I definitely felt it and after a while, I lost interest in the sport. I quit it without much thought and rarely go back to it.

But it is exhilarating to skate and skate well. That’s what I loved most about I, Tonya. It made me remember what it was like to perform. There’s nothing that can make me feel the way it did to throw my body in the air and know, without thinking, how to land gracefully on the edge of a blade.

So yes, for totally personal and selfish reasons I love I, Tonya. I loved that it captured a life experience so perfectly it resonated with me. I loved that it took an unlikable tabloid character and made her human. I love that it challenged convention and what we expect from female-driven biopics. Other than Allison Janney, it’s probably not going to win anything tonight, but it’s one of the best films of the year and you should watch it. Regardless of whether or not you like Tonya Harding or figure skating.

Featured image source: New York Times