If you lived through the madness of “the whack heard ’round the world” in 1994, get ready to see it all over again from a new perspective. I, Tonya is reliving the tabloid dream of the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding debacle that reached fever pitch at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
If you think you’ve come to a complete conclusion about the entire story, I, Tonya may color your opinion in a way you never imagined — feeling sorry for Tonya. I can already hear everyone sighing and typing away in the comments below this article: How can you ever feel sorry for Tonya after what she did to Nancy?
I grew up in Massachusetts a few towns over from Nancy Kerrigan. There was obviously a lot of hometown support and pride in having a bronze-medal-winning skater from the 1992 Olympics heading back to her second Olympics. So let’s lay this out here — the violent attack on her was horrific and traumatic.
When it came to Tonya, I always saw a rough-around-the-edges skater who had a lot of talent, but she always managed to sabotage herself on and off the ice. I could never understand why she couldn’t get it together when she was one of the best skaters in the world.
I, Tonya gave me some more insight into the type of life Tonya experienced. Her mother, LaVona Fay Golden, was abusive; she wanted her daughter to get out of their trailer park life, but she didn’t have the means to do it in a loving way.
Allison Janney portrays LaVona, and the performance is spot-on. You see the brutality and the cutting ways she kept her daughter submissive and living in fear. It made Tonya run out of her mother’s house and straight into the arms of her eventual husband, Jeff Gillooly.
Jeff turned out to be manipulative and abusive to Tonya as well. She did what many abuse victims do: find comfort in the cycle of abuse because it’s the only thing they know. It has sadly become programmed into their DNA.
This cycle of abuse shows up many times in I, Tonya. Even though Tonya is ultimately responsible for her choices and actions, she didn’t stand a chance with so many destructive people around her. You empathize with Tonya because there was no exit from the darkness.
Anyone who has survived abuse can tell you that there’s often a feeling of hopelessness because there seems to be no escape from the hell they are experiencing. In many ways, you see Tonya succeed as an athlete on the ice, but the moment she steps off the ice, she’s treated with tremendous disrespect from everyone close to her. You see her starting to believe the ugly words her mother and husband hurl at her.
In playing Tonya on-screen, Margot Robbie knew that her portrayal hinged on striking that empathy nerve with moviegoers.
“These characters are amazing; so flawed and wrong, and yet you empathize with them in a weird way, and you can see a bit of yourself in them at times,” Robbie explained to Deadline. “There was a real opportunity to surprise people, which to me has been the biggest compliment when people come out and they say, ‘I am so surprised that I felt this. I’m so shocked that I loved it.’“
While it’s really simple to say that Tonya should have just left, we all know it’s not that easy. She was an elite athlete who was told by her coach, her mother and her husband what to do. That’s how she ended up making continual bad choices.
We’ve all been in a situation where we’ve felt stuck and taken the wrong path because we are human. That’s exactly what I, Tonya does — it humanizes an imperfect human being.
“We never wanted her to be a victim. She’s definitely a victim of everyone’s judgment. She’s a victim of abuse. But we didn’t want her to feel like a victim,” Margot summed it up. “We didn’t want her to feel like a villain either. We just wanted her to be a person. That way, everyone can relate to her, because at the end of the day, good or bad, we’re just people.”
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