This blackly comic chronicle of an event we all thought we knew about will be remembered long after the end credits roll. The real-life Harding has given I, Tonya her seal of approval, so it's not surprising that the movie is sympathetic to her, but it's a feat to pull it off with such aplomb. Robbie's portrayal gets under the skin of a person shaped by abandonment, abuse, and class warfare. Her Tonya is a fighter, a survivor. Despite codependent relationships with her abusers and some pretty poor decisions, the lower-working-class girl makes herself into a force in the hoity-toity figure skating world (at least, as it's depicted in the film). And all this is accomplished on-screen with humor and spirit. Director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, Million Dollar Arm) and writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You, Hope Floats) have never demonstrated anything like this in their filmographies -- the closest would be Gillespie's offbeat Lars and the Real Girl. But I, Tonya is snappy, biting, and dark. It's hilarious in its depictions of the morons plotting the infamous attack on Kerrigan and painful in showing the incident's impact on Harding.
The film shows a completely different side of Harding than you get from news coverage, but ultimately, it's all about truth and perspective. I, Tonya challenges what you believe. Toward that end, it offers multiple points of view of events, including intentionally conflicting ones. Stan must play Gillooly as an abusive jerk, a well-meaning supporter, and a dimwitted criminal "mastermind," all at the same time. Janney transforms as Harding's toxic mother, whose actions can seem over-the-top but remain anchored by a committed performance. As young Tonya, the outstanding McKenna Grace (so good in Gifted) makes a very strong impression in her limited screen time. Her goodbye moment with her father is heartbreaking. But the big story here is Robbie, the film's co-producer and star, who trained intensively to pull off most of the role's physical demands. Her performance never feels as if it's manipulating us to feel sorry for Harding; rather, she seems to be getting down to business as a character. There's a lot to get behind with this version of Harding, and Robbie makes sure we're all with her. She's tough. She never feels as if she's commenting on the infamous character (even when breaking the fourth wall). Her courtroom scene is plain great acting. Without her convincing portrayal, the film wouldn't succeed in making us rethink Harding, the incident, and her fate.