No one knew quite what to make of I, Tonya when it first screened in Toronto. It was brilliant, they said — it was dark, it was brutal, it was ugly, it was brash, and it was riveting. Who were these people? How could anyone make a movie about them? How could anyone like a movie made about them? But people did. For a minute there, it looked like I, Tonya could do what so many darker movies have failed to do under the current preferential ballot system: get a Best Picture nomination. It may have just missed the cut for BP, but it landed in a number of categories, including Best Actress for unexpected shape-shifter Margot Robbie, for Tatiana Riegel’s skateblade-sharp editing, and a supporting nod for an actress who has been knocking it out of the park for years but for whatever reason has never gotten to the big show. Alison Janney, a tornado like no other, with her deep world-weary voice and her direct delivery that lays it all on the line, whether she’s a White House Press Secretary or a parrot-wearing, trash mouth alcoholic whose options in life have run out. No one liked that LaVona Robbie smacked her kid around in I, Tonya. What kind of mother does that?
Well, brace yourselves, Oscarwatchers. There’s something out there called the real world. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t nice. It isn’t perfect but it’s as real as the pile of dog shit you almost stepped in this morning on your way to work. It’s as real as that asshole who just cut you off on the freeway and then flipped you off. It’s as real as those awful glimpses into the underbelly that sometimes pops up in your Twitter feed — a couple chains their children to the bed, starves them and locks them in closets. For years. It’s as real as that, and it’s much much worse than that. We’ve somehow done away with art that reveals or reflects parts of our humanity we’ve tried to scrub clean, but here is I, Tonya, exposing it in all of its complex, grimy, abusive, awful glory. Yes, for some, for millions, the American dream is out of reach, even when they’re born white in America. For Tonya Harding, victory would never be, could never be hers because of where she came from. A girl with a little bit of talent but a lot of grit. Even if she’d won fair and square, even if she’d gotten a gold medal, who knows how things would have gone for her. They couldn’t make her into a princess no matter how many sequins they put on her.
The elusive American dream, briefly grasped before it implodes, has often been explored with male characters — Jay Gatsby, for instance. The Wolf of Wall Street. Glengarry Glen Ross. Raging Bull. Taxi Driver. Martin Scorsese is particularly adept at portraying men whose ambitions outsize their inevitable spiraling fate downwards. But women are almost always depicted as the prize. Daisy in Gatsby is the prize. But what if Gatsby were a woman? What would that story be? I, Tonya dares to tell that story of a woman locked out of the world she so desperately wants to belong to. Not in the way that she would be accepted and adored — she doesn’t care about that part of it. She just wants the respect that her undeniable talent should earn for her. But she knows that as a woman not being accepted and adored is the thing that prevents her from being able to compete as an athlete with other more polished ice queens. It’s the skating she cares about, not the fairy tale. But Tonya could never make herself look right. She couldn’t get the clothes right or the hair right. All because she didn’t grow up right. Other skaters had clothes made for them by pricey designers and had their image refined by supportive parents, publicists, photographers. All of her competitors had what people usually have when they’re competing at that level. But Tonya? All she had was outfits she made for herself and bruises covering her body as she hit the ice, again and again, refusing to give up. And then she had that triple axel.
Allison Janney’s portrait of Tonya’s mother reaches beyond mirroring what the real woman looked like or talked like. Janney finds a whole universe that simply isn’t there in video of the actual person. You can see the self-hatred simmering behind her eyes, her own lifetime of disappointment and probably abuse. These things go in cycles. They’re passed down until someone finally says: enough. Janney’s performance is winning not just because she’s Allison Janney and she’s never won an Oscar and she can work the room like Jack Nicholson himself. She’s winning because it’s so rare to see someone take such a big bite into such a dark piece of humanity like that, without flinching. Not since Mo’Nique in Precious has the Oscar for Supporting Actress gone this dark. Somehow Janney emerges from it with humor and warmth. She never needs to make us sympathize with a terrible person, but she makes us understand somehow and feel pity for Tonya’s plight.
The film rests on Margot Robbie, who did what no one thought she could do. She had to become a producer, work on a shoestring budget to give herself permission to not be the pretty girl in the movie for once. How bored she must be in so many previous roles, time and time again, having to stand there and be pretty. She knew she could prove her mettle if she played a woman who had stuff to do, and she’s never been better than she is here as beleaguered Tonya Harding — a woman the press still can’t leave alone. They hate you when you dare to exist after they’ve told you to go away.
The world, and this country especially, is full of all kinds of misfit people. You only need to spend some time on Twitter to see the extremes of awful and adorable, sometimes both embodied in the same person, as even people who believe themselves to be good and honorable can turn into terrible people on Twitter. The freedom to tell stories of people like this, people like Tonya Harding, matter just as much as the safer route of stories about people who are good. Movies can’t always be our magic mirror. Sometimes they haves to give us a glimpse of plain truth. I, Tonya tells it like it is.