“She skated better when she was enraged.” I, Tonya (Plus, poetry readings, resolutions, and cabarets, oh my!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I, Tonya is a troubling film … and not for just the obvious reasons. Yes, director Craig Gillespie’s take on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal does a good job highlighting America’s obsessive and misogynistic need to pit women against one another, regardless the tragic outcomes that may result. Yes, Steve Rogers’ script addresses the notion that competitive ice skating is a sport that often favors artifice over reality, faux-elegance over athleticism. The film nails the tragic economic disparity in this country that can toxify and curdle unfulfilled and unrecognized raw talent into resentment, rage, and unbridled violence.

Yet, it’s the film’s tone that I found most unsettling. There is probably no other way to go than “dark comedy” for an insane and still-somewhat-unresolved story like this: one skater from the “wrong side of the tracks” and one skater with a perceived “princess complex,” surrounded by a band of male idiots who thought it would be a nifty idea to turn the lead-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics (with an eventful stop at Detroit’s Cobo Hall) into a road-show Goodfellas as performed by the cast of Green Acres.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The cast is beyond reproach. Deserving Golden Globe winner Allison Janney (Spy, Tammy, The Help) dazzles and horrifies as Tonya’s “mommie dearest” LaVona whose intentions may be noble but whose approach to child rearing is two shades to the right of the Marquis de Sade. Sebastian Stan (Captain America: Winter Soldier, Logan Lucky) is perhaps a bit too pretty but nonetheless gives us a hauntingly comic portrayal of an abusive milquetoast in Jeff Gillooly. Ethereally engaging Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County) is suitably and allegorically icy as Tonya’s coach.

Of course, Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad, Wolf of Wall Street) rocks the title role. Robbie is an absolute firecracker of a performer, and, while exceptional as Harding, I’m not sure we’ve yet seen that one landmark career-making turn from her. I’m certain it’s on the horizon, but I, Tonya in its entirety doesn’t quite rise to the commitment of what Robbie is doing here.

I also admit that, while Robbie gets Harding’s swagger and little-girl-lost qualities just so, she doesn’t quite have the look. I, like most of America, have wearied of Amy Adams, but watching a documentary of Harding following the film, it was clear that Adams is more of a doppelganger for the troubled athlete.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

And that brings me back to the film’s tone: a bit Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona, Fargo), a bit Gus Van Sant (To Die For), and a heaping helping of postmodern cynicism, but not nearly enough heart. The tragic circumstances of  Harding’s upbringing are bandied about as cutesy one-liners, and the choreographed sequences of domestic abuse (Harding’s mother and husband both dish out brutal beatings on the poor soul) are almost treated like musical interludes. Even the heartbreaking yet admittedly hilarious lament from Robbie’s Harding that “I get hit every day, but Nancy Kerrigan gets hit once, and the whole world sh*ts!” comes off more like a punchline than an authentic assessment of America’s trivialization of violence toward women.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Perhaps I am overly sensitive in this moment of “#MeToo/#TimesUp. Perhaps I have seen too often how insidious and destructive the evil-that-men-do can be to the self-esteem and self-worth of women. Perhaps I just thought I, Tonya was trying to have its cake and eat it too -painting Harding as this heartbreaking misunderstood ice queen Icarus while lobbing spitballs at the back of her head, just in case America wasn’t quite ready to forgive her yet.

As Janney’s LaVona intones in one of the many “mockumentary” style interviews sprinkled throughout the film, “She [Tonya] skated better when she was enraged.” The film gives us an ugly, bruising, arguably self-indulgent depiction of why Harding should be and was enraged, but  it is never quite brave enough to offer her much sympathy or redemption. That may be the saddest crime of all.

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Miscellany …

  • [Biber with – clockwise – Sexton, Rachel Biber, & Rebecca Winder]

    Had a great time Saturday, January 14 with these crazy kids celebrating the launch of pal Rebecca Biber’s first book of poetry Technical Solace from Fifth Avenue Press. [Photos by Rebecca Winder here.] Enjoyed playing Johnny Carson to Rebecca for the reading/Q&A at lovely Megan and Peter Blackshear’s exceptional store Bookbound in Ann Arbor. Thanks to a great crowd including Rebecca Winder, Rachel Biber, Barry Cutler, Beth Kennedy, Toby Tieger, Russ Schwartz, Peggy Lee, Steven Wilson, John Mola, and more. You can purchase the book at Bookbound or via Amazon. Click here. Ann Arbor District Library’s Pulp reviews the event here.

[Musical director Kevin Robert Ryan and Sexton – photo by Denise Staffeld]

  • Thanks, Jennifer Zartman Romano and Talk of the Town Whitley County, for running this announcement! Whitley County native Roy Sexton is among the cast of “Life is A Cabaret,” a live musical theatre fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. The performance is planned for February 7, 2018, at 7 p.m. in Canton, Michigan at Canton Village Theater. The live musical fundraiser will feature Broadway tunes. The event is hosted by Relay for Life in partnership with Women’s Life Society Chapter 827, Chicks for Charity. Attendees will enjoy delicious desserts from a Cold Stone Creamery ice cream bar while bidding on the silent auction. A cash bar will also be available. All proceeds and donations will benefit the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life of Canton and Plymouth, MI to attack cancer from every angle. Tickets are $22. For ticketing information, click here or call 734-394-5300 ext 3. If there is no answer, leave a message and your call will be returned within 24 hours.
  • Thanks, Legal Marketing Association, for this shout out in the latest Strategies magazine.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

[Biber & Sexton, photo by Rebecca Winder]

13 thoughts on ““She skated better when she was enraged.” I, Tonya (Plus, poetry readings, resolutions, and cabarets, oh my!)

  1. Was the documentary you mentioned, “The Price of Gold?” I saw that when it was released on Netflix, and appreciated the perspective. I wasn’t sure if the tone of this film would resonate with me, following the documentary. I was in high school, and glued to the tv during those winter Olympics. I remember thinking Tonya’s costumes were too glitzy for her muscular frame. I remember losing some of my sympathy for Nancy when I heard the melodramatic sobs, “WHY!” I remember losing all respect for her at her entitled disgust at only winning the silver against the brilliant, quiet, and humble upset, Oksana. I’m afraid to watch this film, in a way, because the event was part of my life’s experience, and I’m vividly connected to it. But I love your measured analysis, and your keen ability to challenge the motives of a film.

    • I will have to check that one out. No, this was something that was on ABC where they interviewed all of the participants and the people in the film. I agree with your assessment of the moments as they occurred, and felt similarly about Nancy who was never my cup of tea.

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  2. my feelings about the film were very much the same. i loved the mother, spot on and scarily intense and cruel, and i was a bit upended by the dark comedy take. my daughter said she was unclear about what was real and what was not. i told her about my memories of the real event. the bungling spy crew were depicted much like i remembered them, and most of the events were somewhat accurate.the film reminded me of why i always felt for tonya, including how she was treated by the press. the style was somewhat disarming and took away from the issues and the real story, by inserting humor and artsy camera shots. margot was fine but it was hard for me to believe that she ever has stepped over the wrong side of the tracks, let alone lived there. i had a hard time accepting the actor who played jeff. sometimes, i think film makers like to insert humor and style to make a hard story softer for the audience to take, but something huge is lost in this.

    fun night last night!

    • I’m glad to hear that. I was afraid that I might be missing something here. Someday, I would be interested to revisit film. I liked much of it, but what I didn’t like really hurt the rest of the film. It also could be, in part, a consequence of unfortunate timing

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  3. Pingback: A room of her own ( #OscarsSoRight? ): The Post; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Bird; The Shape of Water; The Darkest Hour « Reel Roy Reviews

  4. I have finally managed to see “I, Tonya.” I am always so far behind, but I always love reading your reviews, even if it’s months before I’m able to see the film for myself. I must say that your passing comment about Robbie not quite having the look for Harding was spot on. It was odd. Towards the end of the film, she started to wear her hair pulled back. No bangs. Once she started pulling her bangs off of her forehead, Margot Robbie bore an uncanny resemblance to Nancy Kerrigan! It actually caused me some confusion!

    Having watched it now, I completely agree with your assessment of the tone of the film and ultimately a punch pulled. Just not quite brave enough for the follow-through.

    I had many thoughts as I watched, about the comparisons between figure skating and gymnastics. Both of these sports suffer from an over-emphasis on “packaging.” I don’t know how it works in ice skating, but in gymnastics, women don’t “earn” their spot on the US Olympic team. They are selected. And that selection takes into consideration everything from beauty and marketability, to storyline. Unless you have an obvious paragon of talent and achievement like Simone Biles, basically everyone else is subject to the whims of the selection committee. That doesn’t mean that these athletes aren’t phenomenal. But it does mean that when it comes to deciding between two equally stellar athletes, they will err on the side of the prettier package.

    • Right?! And I thought that ultimately would’ve been a more interesting story to tell. Seems like they wanted to go there, and made interesting overtures in the direction of how hypocritical the whole enterprise can be, but then were afraid that they were being too sympathetic. They need to let the two of us make movies from now on!

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