“There are ways to portray a goober who happens to be overweight without resorting to fat-shaming for laughs.”
Title: I, Tonya (2017)
Director: Craig Gillespie 👨🏼🇦🇺
Writer: Steven Rogers 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
I, Tonya is an unconventional biopic that employs one of my favorite narrative devices: the breaking up of truth, Rashomon-style, as it explores the principle question of how involved parties recall the Nancy Kerrigan incident in their own, differing ways. Director Craig Gillespie does something genuinely fresh with his splicing of interviews, flashbacks, and direct-to-audience addresses in this dark comedy.
While I adored the first half and latter quarter of the film, it must be said that the middle sags like a sow’s belly. It’s a shame, too. A blisteringly funny start had me hopeful for an amazing time, but the sudden dive into crime procedural storytelling halfway through drags down much of the overall experience. A strong hand with editing would have allowed this unique tale to soar.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
The film is structured by re-enacted interviews about the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan, but what drives its emotional core is the antagonistic relationship between Tonya, played by Margot Robbie, and her emotionally abusive mother, played to perfection by Allison Janney.
Their relationship sees a significant amount of screen time, portrayed through a “white trash” universe resplendent with wild game hunting, domestic abuse, and foul-mouthed chainsmokers. Supporting characters like Tonya’s doll-like skating coach (Julianne Nicholson) or competitor Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) provide a well-heeled contrast, fleshing out the cast of female characters to reflect different ages and income levels.
People of color are absent from I, Tonya. While this could be excused by the whiteness of the sport itself, there was room for background shots of international stars or, closer to home, American figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi who medalled in multiple competitions alongside both Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding during this time period. She could have conceivably appeared in a cameo or garnered a mention beyond getting name-dropped just once, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment. After all, the competitions depicted below are all recreated in the film, including a podium scene that conveniently crops out Yamaguchi (beyond a micro-second camera shot of the back of her head).
Still, considering its relative accuracy to the era and the film’s narrow scope of work, we’ll afford this score a point.
Deduction for Body Positivity: -1.00
One thing that surprised me was the regressive fat shaming in I, Tonya. While it’s true that the film’s only real villain, Shawn Eckhardt (played by Paul Walter Hauser), was a ridiculous man who described himself in a 1994 interview as an expert in “counter-espionage and counter-terrorism”, the degree to which Gillespie paints him as a slob in I, Tonya is gratuitous.
Shawn is shown eating in nearly every one of his scenes. At its worst, he sits in the back of a car driven by Tonya’s ex-husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), shirtless, unshaven, sweating, and eating from a bag of chips as his hairy chest is littered with crumbs. I had to wonder—why? Is this meant to be funny? There are ways to portray a goober who happens to be overweight without resorting to fat-shaming for laughs.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 3.17/5
As a story about a female athlete which rests on an emotional foundation of a turbulent mother-daughter relationship, I, Tonya scoops up appropriate points for Gender representation. However, its absence of non-white characters and portraiture of Shawn as a food-obsessed Fat Guy takes a lot of steam out of its diversity score.
If you can get through the film’s soggy center, it’s a wonderful watch that doles out belly laughs as quickly as it makes you ponder the facetiousness of memory. But don’t expect I, Tonya to touch on matters of diversity and inclusion.