Wednesday, 31 January 2018

I, Tonya (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: In 1994, figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) became embroiled in a media frenzy surrounding an attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). Intercut with “documentary footage” of Tonya, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), the characters involved talk about what led up to that incident, from Tonya’s childhood to her achievements in figure skating, right down to just how much of that particular attack she was aware of at the time. It seems that, even for a story that has gone down into pop culture legend, there is still a lot left unsaid.

Robbie is about as flawless as it is possible for a human being to get with this role, playing up the character’s immediate signifiers (white redneck attached to a still-remembered piece of pop culture) while never letting that diminish the downright tragic aspects. Same goes for Mckenna Grace as the younger Tonya, who continues to show her chops at playing rather peculiar young women on film. Stan likewise fits the role excellently, to the point of being damn-near unrecognisable, and he weaves through the occasionally monstrous parts of the character to the point where the audience can accept that he is as much a victim of circumstance as everyone else… but that he also has a lot to answer for, as far as the historical events go.

Janney has easily the trickiest role to pin down of the lot, that being Tonya’s exceptionally cold mother, and the fact that she does this well with it would be kind of frightening if she didn’t nail every single moment she has on-screen. Being able to portray someone who is this blatantly an hateful person and make it this watchable just has to be commended. Julianne Nicholson and Bojana Novakovic as two of Tonya’s coaches get some very nice moments all to themselves, Bobby Cannavale as Hard Copy producer Martin Maddox gets some of the film’s bigger one-liners, all of which he pulls off quite well, and Paul Walter Hauser as Tonya’s “bodyguard” Shawn is absolutely astounding in this thing. The guy’s mainly known for doing bit parts in films and TV episodes, but judging by how well he plays the surprisingly pretentious linchpin, I’m willing to bet that will change soon enough. This guy deserves more work, purely on how good he is here.

Well, we’re dealing with yet another modern biopic and, on the surface, it looks like it will play out in a rather familiar fashion. Show the main details, put some spice in, cover it with artistic license to excuse the inaccuracies, and end with found footage to prove that the film was indeed “accurate” to what actually happened; pretty cut-and-dry, right? Not quite. Instead, this film actively plays around with the idea of this being a retelling of historic events, employing a combination of clarity and just plain honesty to show a story comprised of various versions of those events. What’s more, it doesn’t even try to hide that fact either, with the actors regularly breaking the fourth wall to admit certain discrepancies between those versions. The end result is a biopic that is already showing enough real-world knowledge about its own cinematic niche to be able to rise above some of the bigger pitfalls, and it employs that to actively mess with the audience’s expectations.

The story of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan has managed to stay within the collective consciousness for over twenty years. It’s a story that is easy enough to recount (figure skater kneecaps her rival to win a medal) and easy to mock as well, as all manner of comedians in the interim have proven. This film is perfectly aware of all of this, both on an obvious and not-so-obvious level. On the obvious side, it presents a lot of the melodramatic aspects of the story as comedy, particularly with Tonya’s relationship with her mother and her then-husband. Have to admit, even considering how unnerving some of those moments get, this film definitely has humour cred to its name, aided by how on-point the acting is across the board. On the not-so-obvious side, the first half of the film plays out as if it knows why audiences would be attracted to the story in the first place: To get a chance to laugh at someone recent history hasn’t exactly treated with utmost respect. But as it carries on, and the darker comedic stylings give way to straight-up drama, it crafts an experience that is like starting out with a puff piece on the story that is not unlike every other that has been done on it before… and then becoming something wholly different and, honestly, something we need right now.

Even considering my own cultural background, even I grew up hearing the story of this psychotic figure skater; I have Weird Al Yankovic to thank for that, as Headline News is one of his many song parodies that wound up overshadowing the original in every aspect possible. But that’s the thing about stories like this, particularly those that actually happened: We tend to focus solely on the big newsworthy incident, essentially playing peanut gallery with the tabloids that makes the people involved out to be more walking punchlines than actual flesh-and-blood people. And as we see Tonya slip further and further down in terms of mental state, we get a pretty damn intense showing of what that can do to a person. We see far more than just the person that a rather bizarre incident revolved around; we see someone who was pushed by so many different forces, from her mother to her upbringing to her general attitudes towards the world, that she nearly got crushed right in the middle. A person whose life story, both the good (first female skater to pull off a triple axel) and the bad (her history of abusive relationships), was only summed up by a single moment that could very well have been more the actions of others than herself.

This reaches something genuinely important when put into the context of today, this weird “post-truth” landscape that modern media is shaping for humanity with how much anything to do with news coverage has been questioned, dissected and dismissed; notice how much ‘Fake News’ has become the big buzz-term of the last year. But you know what the scary part about that idea is? If we do indeed live in a “post-truth” civilisation, we’ve been living in it for a lot longer than we may realise. No matter how objective news coverage has tried to be, with varying degrees of success, it’s still not enough to account for how much every single person walking this planet is made up of all manner of internal contradictions. It’s one of the reasons why stories like this get remembered as they do: It’s a lot easier to just boil a person’s image down to just a series of moments, rather than try and acknowledge their often-conflicted existence in its entirety.

Much like the idea of being a biographical film, this production is also aware that this story isn’t something preserved in perfect memory, even for those who experienced first-hand. It acknowledges the idea of subjective reality, one made up out of the overlap of perspectives rather than an absolute timeline that exists beyond those perspectives, by showing everyone’s version of the story differs. With cynicism factoring into a lot of modern-day mindsets about how people are ‘supposed’ to be treated, this makes a plea for sympathy, not cynicism, from its audience. It asks us to cut through the mocking dissemination the original story has gone through, and keep in mind that it still involved real people, people who probably don’t like the idea of being made a joke out of for things outside of their control.

You know that one memory you have of something stupid you did when you were younger? The one that you find yourself thinking about late at night while you’re trying to sleep, making you retroactively curse yourself for what you did? Imagine if that one event was all that the world remembered about you 20 years from now, and it was something that people loved to take the piss out of… even though that moment caused you enough guilt that, even after all this time, you still remember it for yourself in all its unpleasant detail. Have to admit, in that situation, I'd feel attacked too; hard to blame this film for being as angry as it is.

All in all, this is just about as scathing as a biopic can get. Not of the characters, all of whom are performed extremely well, but of the audience and the reason why they know the characters. I don’t normally show this much respect for a film that literally insults its own audience (and yeah, in one of the fourth-wall-breaking moments, Margot Robbie as Tonya does exactly that), but then again, very rarely does a film have a genuine point to make while doing so. The acting is terrific, the soundtrack is pretty damn good, and the writing manages to craft an intense character study while at the same time asking why that character is being studied in the first place.

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