Despite a compelling performance by Margot Robbie, ‘I, Tonya’s disturbingly humorous take on the hellish emotional, physical and mental abuse she endured is pretty upsetting to watch.
Let me preface this review by saying that there is not a single bad performance in I, Tonya, which releases to theaters on December 8. The cast, which includes big names like Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney and Bobby Cannavale, is truly incredible all-around. The problem with I, Tonya runs much, much deeper than that: it makes a mockery of child abuse, domestic violence and, sadly, Tonya’s “white trash” persona. What’s worse is that you don’t even realize it’s happening until you’ve already laughed at multiple inappropriate moments, mostly at the hand of Tonya’s mom, LaVona, who can only be described as a horrific mother at best. And worse than that? It’s unclear if it was intentional to turn the awful things that happened to Tonya growing up into a joke or not.
In the film we learn that the abuse for Tonya started early when her mother shoved her out onto the ice at four years old and forced her to start training. We, too, are forced to watch as LaVona bullies Tonya from the sidelines in front of everyone — the other skaters, their parents, the coaches, etc. When a mother finally intervenes and asks LaVona to stop swearing around their children, she responds by calling the woman a “c-nt.” The scene comes off as comedic, as if LaVona calling the mother the c-word is some sort of punchline in the midst of abusing her child. Funny, sure, but in reality shouldn’t this scene be far more upsetting because no one is sticking their neck out for Tonya? And, as the movie goes on, we learn that no one ever will. We continue to watch LaVona beat her daughter over the years, most of which also comes across as comedic on screen. Sometimes it’s just a hand, sometimes she throws things, and sometimes it’s with the little girls own hairbrush in a skating rink bathroom. There is even a scene in which Tonya asks to use the restroom during training but her mom refuses to let her go, so she accidentally wets herself on the ice. It’s heartbreaking to watch as the little girl realizes what’s happened. Even LaVona realizes she’s messed up, but instead of admitting defeat she forces her daughter, approximately 12 years old at the time, to “skate wet.” Again, no one intervenes and the audience inside the theater laughs as if this is all one big joke. It’s not. This is someone’s life.
When Tonya finally meets Jeff Gillooly in the film, it’s not long before he’s beating her up, too. Their fights turn physical very quickly, and soon enough we are watching a broken Tonya cake on her makeup before skating competitions so no one can see what is really happening to her behind the scenes. For the record, Jeff alleges abuse from Tonya, too, but she repeatedly denies it — even as we watch a memory he recalls in which Tonya is aiming her shotgun at her husband and misses him by mere inches. Again, these terrifying, life-threatening incidents get big laughs from the audience. Tonya explains to the audience why she’s allowing Jeff to beat her in one scene where they are in the throws of passion after a fight. She looks directly at the camera and blatantly tells us that she believes her mom hit her because she loved her, so that must mean Jeff loves her, too. It’s devastating to watch, especially in the current social climate, knowing that Tonya endured what she did because no one ever taught her to believe she could be better than that. Unfortunately the movie continues that narrative by making her life seem like one big episode of Cops, in which we’re all supposed to entertained by the fact she’s being beat up at every turn. Tell me this: if Tonya were a rich, high society figure skater that no one ever frowned upon, would we have been so accepting? Or is this abuse-is-funny narrative only being deemed “acceptable” because Tonya was considered white trash?
According to the film’s star, Margot, Tonya Harding herself had nothing but good things to say about the film after she saw it. “She was so gracious, she was amazing about [seeing the film],” Margot told IMDb in an interview “Really, really amazing. She was very complimentary about what we pulled off, and she was really kind about my skating even though I’m nowhere near as good as I should be. Yeah, she was great.” However, screenwriter Steven Rogers did reveal that there were some things about I, Tonya that the real-life subject didn’t like in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Unfortunately, Steven didn’t elaborate on what those things were.
Tell us, HollywoodLifers — What do YOU think about I, Tonya turning her history of being abused into a joke? Comment below, let us know.