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Film / I, Tonya

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"I was the best figure skater in the world, at one point in time."
"America, they want someone to love, but they want someone to hate. And the haters always say, 'Tonya, tell the truth.' There's no such thing as truth, I mean, it's bullshit!"

I, Tonya is a 2017 sports dramedy film directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers. It stars Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Caitlin Carver, Bojana Novakovic, Bobby Cannavale and Paul Walter Hauser.

It is a Biopic about figure skater Tonya Harding (Robbie) and the cheating scandal that led to her public disgrace in 1994. It is framed as a series of present-day interviews with Tonya and several people who were involved with her and "the incident", including mother Lavona Harding (Janney) and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Stan), each of whom has their own perspective and agenda in telling their version of the story.


I, Tonya provides examples of:

  • 15 Minutes of Fame: Eventually (and obviously), the Tonya Harding scandal is put on the back burner as the O.J. Simpson murders hit the news, as Jeff soon discovers.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The first 10-15 minutes of the movie focuses on Tonya when she's between 4 and 10 years old.
  • Abusive Parents: Extremely. At one point, Tonya's mother Lavona chucks a steak knife into Tonya's arm.
  • Acting Unnatural: While staking out the ice rink, Nancy's attackers try to avoid notice by changing their parking spot every fifteen minutes. This is not how you avoid attention.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness:
    • Even with an unfortunate moustache, Sebastian Stan is still a lot better looking than the real Jeff Gillooly.
    • Also true for Tonya herself. Being played by Margot Robbie makes this hard to avoid even with her Beauty Inversion to make her look frumpier and lower-class. Not to mention that Robbie is 5'6"/1.68 m—the real-life Harding is all of 5'1"/1.55 m.
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  • Alas, Poor Villain: For all her sins, it's hard not to feel bad for Tonya when she is banned for life from skating. She has given her whole life to the sport, doesn't know how to do anything else and it's the only time in her life when she feels loved or that she matters.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Footage of the actual people portrayed in the film is played over the credits, revealing that some of the weirder aspects of the film were taken directly from this footage. Some examples include:
    • Tonya's mother being interviewed on her sofa, wearing a fur coat with a parakeet perched on her shoulder.
    • Shawn Eckardt's claims of being a counter-terrorism expert and bragging about being quoted in a travel magazine are taken almost a word-for-word from his interview with Diane Sawyer.
  • And Starring: The cast roll ends "with Bobby Cannavale and Allison Janney".
  • Anti-Hero: The film is sympathetic to Tonya, showing her as a victim of severe emotional and physical abuse and classism. However it also points out her many personality flaws and poor decisions that led to her downfall.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The real Tonya did confront the judges about her scoring only to be told her outfits needed improvement, but it happened off the ice rather than on it. She also insists that she didn't swear nearly as much as the film's Tonya did.
    • The real Shawn didn't call in the death threat on Tonya, nor did he wear a wire to a meeting with Jeff (though he was on the receiving end of a wire-tapped meeting, which he sniffed out quickly).
    • Tonya never fired her coach Diane Rawlinson in a fit of rage; it was a mutual split that resulted from Tonya losing focus on her training. Dody Teachman was actually Rawlinson's first student and assistant whom she delegated to become Tonya's new coach.
    • At one point, Diane approaches a forlorn Tonya and informs her the next Winter Olympics will be held in 1994 instead of 1996. In reality, the change in the scheduling of the Olympics had been decided and made public in 1986. Everyone who participated in the 1992 Albertville games knew full well there would be another one in Lillehammer just two years later.
    • Though Tonya was told to get a fur coat to help fit the "Ice Princess" image, her father didn't make one from rabbits he hunted. He just saved up to buy her a rabbit fur coat. And instead of Tonya getting mocked for her coat, and flipping off the girls who did it, she had a Deadpan Snarker moment with a girl who bragged that her coat was mink, Tonya said "Thanks, mine's paid for."
    • Tonya learns that she'll be banned from figure skating for life when she's sentenced for her part in obstructing the investigation. In real life, that decision was made by the USFSA six months after she was sentenced. And even if it had been the judge who decreed this, Tonya should have been well aware of it before he made the announcement, as her lawyer would have discussed it with her.
  • Bait the Dog:
    • Lavona comes to Tonya's wedding, and at first it looks like maybe she's come around to accepting the couple, but later she tells Tonya in the harshest possible way that she's making a stupid mistake by marrying Jeff. Even if she ends up ultimately being right, it's a horrible thing to tell your daughter on her special day.
    • After Tonya is implicated in the incident, Lavona comes to Tonya's house to comfort her and tell her that she has her support. What seems like a heartwarming moment turns out to be more of Lavona's manipulative tricks, as she's trying to get Tonya to admit her complicity in the incident while recording their conversation for the press.
  • Basement-Dweller: Shawn Eckardt. He's overweight, stupid, still lives with his parents, and believes he's a world-class spymaster despite having done nothing with his life.
  • Beauty Inversion: All the main characters (including the model-beautiful Sebastian Stan and Margot Robbie) undergo this to some extent to look more appropriate for people living in a backwoods area, but Lavona is the most transformed from the attractive Allison Janney.
  • Believing Your Own Lies: Shawn repeatedly insists that he is an international spy who works for Intelligence, even when confronted by a journalist in an interview how research blatantly disproved it.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Jeff is presented as such, being a soft-spoken and earnest-seeming guy who is an abusive and emotionally-manipulative spouse behind closed doors.
  • Blatant Lies: Shawn is a very poor liar and cracks almost immediately under questioning.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Characters frequently speak directly to the camera as events they are describing in the interviews unfold.
  • Broken Ace: Tonya was the first American woman to successfully perform a triple axel in competition, but her background, personal life, and the controversy surrounding Nancy Kerrigan ends up overshadowing her actual ability.
  • Child Prodigy: Tonya was winning first-place when she was just four years old, competing against much older and more experienced girls.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Lavona gives these out on more than one occasion.
  • Crippling the Competition: The plan that made Tonya infamous: send a thug to cripple Nancy Kerrigan's knee before the competition so that she can't steal Tonya's spotlight.
  • Daddy's Girl: Tonya was much closer to her father, but it didn't stop him from abandoning her when he divorced Lavona.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: The film does it unintentionally by repetitively mentioning Harding being the first American female skater to land a triple Axel. This ends up working more like a Overly Narrow Superlative than an actual achievement or a praise, especially if you're familiar with figure skating.
  • Demoted to Extra: Despite winning the gold medal in the Olympic competition, and the first ever Olympic medal for independent Ukraine, that is the focus of this movie, Oksana Baiul is barely in the film and doesn't even have spoken lines. Despite being on the receiving end of "the incident", Nancy Kerrigan is barely in the film and has only the single spoken word "why?" although she does have one line in a deleted scene.
  • Description Cut: Tonya claims that a spate of poor performances was due to faulty equipment. The film then cuts to a montage of her slacking off and overindulging in booze and junk food. This is further contrasted with her Olympics program in Lillehammer, which does go sideways due to faulty equipment, but she doesn't attribute her 8th position to that and is content with her performance.
  • Digital Head Swap: Used to replace Margot Robbie's skating double's face for the really difficult moves.
  • Domestic Abuse: Tonya's relationship with Jeff is abusive from the start, with lots of shouting and hitting. For her part, Tonya comes at Jeff with a shotgun, which she denies ever happened.
  • Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male:
    • Averted. Tonya verbally and occasionally physically abuses Jeff, but it's a continued testament to how awful their relationship is.
    • Played straight In-Universe with Lavona, however. She tells Tonya that she'd never stay with anyone who hits her, but says it's different when Tonya points out she hits her father. However, this further shows Lavona's self-serving, reprehensible nature.
  • Dramedy: At face value, Tonya's story is a Tragedy: She is a talented underdog who makes history in women's figure skating with her triple axel, but she is constantly held back by her unrefined background, unhealthy personal relationships, and in-your-face personality, which all prevent her from appealing to the judges and giving her best possible performance. Things are looking up as she gets ready for the 1994 Winter Olympics, but because of her envy and desire to win—as well as her poor choice of friends—she gets involved in Jeff and Shawn's ill-fated plot against Kerrigan, leading to her public disgrace and being banned from skating for life. But the movie often mocks, if not embraces, how ridiculous and outlandish everyone involved is.
    Martin Maddox: I mean, we had no idea that a plan like this could be carried out by two of the biggest boobs in a story populated solely by boobs!
  • Epic Fail: Not only do the Stupid Crooks who assaulted Nancy get caught immediately, they don't even succeed in getting her off the ice. Nancy is able to compete in the Olympics anyway, rendering the whole plan moot.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: After her performance suffers prior to the 1992 Winter Olympics, Tonya is seen working as a waitress. After being banned from skating in the wake of the 1994 incident, she takes up boxing, among other things.
  • Fanservice: Beauty Inversion attempt aside, that is still Margot Robbie walking around in ice-skating costumes in several scenes.
  • Fat Idiot: Shawn is morbidly obese and very, very stupid.
  • Flipping the Bird: Young Tonya does this after one of her wealthier competitors mockingly quips about her makeshift rabbit hair coat.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Thanks to the framing device and our knowledge of history, we know from the beginning how this flashback story's gonna end: Tonya and Jeff have to face the law, and she's banned from skating ever again.
  • Freudian Excuse: Having a harsh, uncaring mother like Lavona Harding helps explain how Tonya could have turned out so maladjusted.
  • Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse: The film makes it clear that, as wretched as her life was, Tonya still needs to take responsibility for her actions.
  • Friendly Enemy: Tonya reveals that she and Nancy Kerrigan were actually friends, or at least friendly with each other. They'd even roomed together during competitions, and the film shows them partying together.
  • Gilligan Cut: Shawn insists he would never rat out Jeff, saying he would endure torture first. Sure enough, his next scene has him give up Jeff to the FBI in under a minute and under almost no pressure.
  • Groin Attack: Tonya employs this several times while fending off Jeff.
  • Henpecked Husband: Jeff is much meeker in his own narrative of his and Tonya's relationship.
    • Shades of Truth in Television here: domestic abusers, particularly violent ones, will commonly downplay their own violence towards their partner and exaggerate the partner's actions to make themselves look sympathetic.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Despite the film's portrayal of Tonya as a flawed Unreliable Narrator who never takes responsibility for anything, the way it portrays her story makes her seem like a victim of circumstance and poor upbringing who had no interest or involvement in the knee-capping conspiracy. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but some critics and commentators objected to the film's sympathetic portrayal of her and its generous interpretation of events.
  • Hope Spot:
    • In-universe, Tonya's marriage to Jeff is viewed at this, with her escaping her abusive mother and improving at skating when living with him. Unfortunately, the marriage falls apart and becomes abusive quickly.
    • After failing to perform well in the 1992 Winter Olympics, Tonya, falling on hard times, ends up working as a waitress. Diane soon returns, however, and convinces her to take another try, since the next Winter Olympics will be coming in two years rather than four.
    • Also, at another scene where the world is hating on Tonya and she's alone in her home being hounded by the press when Lavona comes in to see how she is. She's so touched by this, that she breaks down in tears and hugs her... only to learn that it was all a ploy and that she is recording her to get her to confess. She then angrily throws her out.
  • Hot-Blooded: Tonya is extremely competitive and isn't afraid to confront judges on their scoring of her, or to shoot at her husband with a rifle.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Tonya slams Nancy for looking so sulky after coming in second place at the Olympics, but she herself displayed plenty of bad behavior after getting scores she didn't like when she performed below expectations.
    • Lavona tells Tonya that she would never allow her husband abuse her, and Tonya's cut off attempt to argue back indicates that she may have had an abusive husband.
  • I, Noun: The title I, Tonya tells you this is supposed to be Tonya's story in her own words.
  • I Was Quite a Fashion Victim: Jeff says that he can't apologize enough for the moustache he had during the events of the film.
  • Implausible Deniability: Shawn denies knowing a "Tony Harding", despite it being well-known that he claimed to work for her.
  • Irony: Harding's Olympics performances, at least as portrayed in the film. In '92, she's slacking off and doesn't train almost at all - and she comes off 4th, even despite messing up her triple Axel jump. In '94, she puts on a serious training and practice regime, and after initial issues even gains sympathy of the judges - something she never achieved prior - then gives a perfect performance... and is 8th this time.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Despite her abusive nature, Lavona speaks the truth at Tonya's wedding reception when she tells her "you don't marry dumb." Had Tonya known enough to stay away from Jeff, many of the events in the film would not have happened. Tonya even admits that marrying Jeff was a dumb move.
    • Tonya is not wrong when she says that her scoring wasn't fair; she was easily the best skater, and a lot of her lesser scores did have to do with pure classism. Skating costumes were (and still are) extremely expensive, which put Tonya at a disadvantage that had nothing to do with her actual skillExplanation .
    • She's also completely correct when she points out that she doesn't have the wholesome, stable background the scorers want from their representative, and that's not her fault. And, unlike the costumes, there is absolutely nothing she can do about it. (She's a lot more polite when she points this out, though.)
      Can't it just be about the skating?
    • The judge she's having this conversation with also makes a good point. It's not that they can't see her talent or are unable to see past her upbringing and origins or are jerks just for the sake of it. It's that Tonya absolutely refuses to play along. She could easily adjust, but her pig-headed desire to act on her own and do things her own way is what ultimately keeps putting her at odds with judges and her confrontational nature isn't helping one bit.
      You're representing our country, for fuck's sake
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: Lavona enters this territory when she shows up at Tonya's house during her darkest hours, as reporters are hounding her after the Nancy Kerrigan "incident." She hugs Tonya to let her know that she's on her side, but it turns out she's not, as she planted a recorder in hopes of getting a confession out of her own daughter.
  • Kick the Dog: The Hard Copy reporter who serves as one of the narrators is revealed to be a scumbag toward the end, when he admits that he would slash Tonya's tires and have her car towed just to get some film coverage of her.
  • Knee Capping: Or "The Incident", as it is referred to in the film. And being "Gilloolied," as the present-day Jeff Gillooly explains at the start of the film.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Shawn Eckardt. Despite being obviously as dumb as a bag of hammers to anyone who talks to him, he thinks of himself as being "4 steps ahead of everyone".
  • The Lad-ette: Tonya can booze, hunt, and fix cars just as well as Jeff can.
  • Lack of Empathy: Tonya's attitude to Nancy's assault. She's been hit almost every day since childhood. Why is everyone so concerned about Nancy getting hit once?
  • Lower-Class Lout: Tonya and it forms a huge part of her character and resentment towards the world. She maintains that it's the reason why she never had a fair chance in skating competitions as judges want someone more traditional.
  • The Millstone: Even considering how bad Tonya's life was before, everything goes to utter crap once Shawn Eckardt comes into the picture and becomes her bodyguard. After Tonya gets a death threat, Eckardt is tasked with sending death threats by letter to Tonya's competitor Nancy Kerrigan, in order to frazzle Nancy as much as Tonya. Him and his guys don't mail the letters. Instead, they choose to hit Nancy in the knee. Eckardt also brags about the assault to anyone who will listen, in order to boost his bodyguard/"hitman" rep. This is a bit subverted when it's found out Eckardt made the death threat on Tonya in the first place in order to set this whole stupid plan in motion.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: In the ending interviews, Jeff does appear to genuinely regret the fact that he wrecked Tonya's career, and owns it.
  • News Monopoly: After Nancy Kerrigan is kneecapped, Tonya phones Jeff in order for him to watch television, as the news of Nancy's kneecap is on every channel.
  • Never My Fault:
    • A major theme in the film is Tonya never accepting responsibility for anything and constantly stating that nothing is her fault. She's also quick to point out the flaws of others to excuse her own actions, such as claiming that Nancy's disappointed expression when winning silver was worse than attacking her.
    • Lavona, in true Jerkass fashion, has a "making her tougher" or "that's not that bad" excuse for every horrifying bit of abuse she deals to Tonya, including throwing a steak knife that hits Tonya in the arm.
  • Nothing but Hits: The film's soundtrack consists of popular music from the 70s, 80s and 90s, including Supertramp, ZZ Top and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: Tonya's coach breaks the fourth wall to tell us that Tonya's Rocky IV-esque training regimen did in fact actually happen.
  • Obliviously Evil: While the film deliberately portays Tonya and Jeff as unreliable with their stories and their actual part in the whole incident, it at least makes it clear they both are aware of the implications of their actions and clearly regret the end results. Shawn Eckardt, meanwhile, is portayed as too stupid to even realise he did something wrong or ruined anyone's life, too caught up with his fantasies and tall stories.
  • Oh, Crap!: Jeff's reaction when he realizes that Nancy was actually assaulted is of utter horror.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: In-Universe as in Real Life, Tonya and Jeff both know they're doomed to always be remembered mainly for "the incident", regardless of everything Tonya accomplished before.
  • Overshadowed by Controversyinvoked: This is Tonya's ultimate fate, as all her very impressive achievements pale in comparison to the scandal over "the incident".
  • Parental Betrayal: Lavona comes over to Tonya's house during the Nancy Kerrigan scandal under the pretense of comforting her daughter and Tonya believes her until she discovers that her mother had been recording their conversation in order to sell it to the tabloids.
  • Person as Verb: Jeff Gillooly's name was, for a time, synonymous with kneecapping somebody. Jeff admits in the interview that having your name used as a verb is pretty cool.
  • Persona Non Grata: It's a Foregone Conclusion that Tonya would be banned from skating for life after Nancy's assault.
  • Potty Failure: Lavona refuses to let child Tonya leave the rink to go to the bathroom, and she wets herself down to the skates.
  • Pretty in Mink:
    • The other young, richer skaters all have fur coats, and Tonya's coach insists she needs one as well to be taken seriously. As Tonya's family can't afford it, her father hunts enough rabbits to skin them and make her her own coat, which those girls mock her for.
    • Adult Tonya is able to afford a proper rabbit jacket.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: Tonya and Jeff frequently disagree on how events unfolded and we often see each version portrayed. The writer made clear that the interviews with both had such conflicting views, so that was his attempt at a compromise.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Tonya gives a harsh one to Shawn at one point, calling him out on his stupidity, obesity, and the fact he still lives with his parents.
  • Second Place Is for Losers:
    • Tonya notes that when Nancy got the silver in Lillehammer, she looked like "just stepped on poop".
    • Harding herself ends up being 4th, right next to the Olympic podium, in '92 Albertville games. As she puts it out, fourth places doesn't give you endorsement deals - it gives you a morning shift in a diner.
  • A Simple Plan: They're just gonna send some death threats to Nancy to unnerve her before the competition. What could go wrong?
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Everyone. Everyone. Though Tonya most of all.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: Tonya, with her cheap costumes and unrefined performing music, is constantly at odds with the judges, who look for wholesome sophistication.note 
  • Sore Loser: Tonya accuses Nancy of being this after she's visibly upset about "only" getting silver. Of course, Tonya's not exactly one to talk...
  • Spiritual Successor: For the 1995 movie To Die For, which was also based (though more loosely) on a true story. Not only for its documentary style narrative and its dark humor, but the plot zigzags through many of the same themes expressed in the movie, including America's preoccupation with scandalous news stories. Both films also had Australian actresses in the lead.
  • Smug Snake: Shawn. He imagines himself to be a criminal mastermind who can outsmart the FBI when he's really a low-level loser who's as dumb as a sack of hammers.
  • Stage Mom: Lavona, of the particularly abusive variety. She forces young Tonya to pee herself rather than let her off the ice long enough to use the bathroom.
  • Stupid Crooks: The Coen Brothers, on their best day, couldn't have imagined a pack of criminals dumber than the ones we see here. Highlights include conspicuously changing spots in a parking lot every fifteen minutes to avoid suspicion, making no effort to cover their faces when carrying out the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and, to top it all, Shawn openly bragging about Jeff's part in the attack to anyone who can listen. What's more, one of the hitmen is caught because he charged his hits to a credit card, which despite being almost too stupid to believe, really did happen. And to add the final insult to injury, they even managed to miss the vital part of Nancy's knee and she was able to recover in time for the Olympics, so it was All for Nothing.
  • Suicide Dare: Tonya does this rather coldly to Jeff before parting ways with him forever. It leaves him a sobbing mess.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Jeff isn't the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but compared to Shawn and his associates, he's practically a genius. No wonder he's constantly at his wits' end with them.
  • Tomboy with a Girly Streak: Tonya likes hunting, trucks, and beer, and has the mouth of a sailor. After the Incident, she takes up boxing. However, she's most famous as a figure skater, which is considered to be a feminine sport.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Tonya is hot-blooded from a young age and isn't afraid to mouth off or resort to Flipping the Bird at other girls. With a mother like Lavona, what else could be expected?
  • Unreliable Narrator: From the very beginning of the film, we're warned that it's based on wildly contradictory interviews. During flashbacks, the film frequently cuts to interviews of characters giving a different account. Sometimes the characters will stop in the middle of a scene to look at the camera and insist that the event being portrayed didn't happen.
    • When Tonya claims that a spate of poor performance was due to faulty skating equipment, the film makes a Description Cut showing Tonya slacking off and overindulging. The film also attempts to portray the different accounts of how "the incident" occurred to leave the decision up to the audience.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Only a jackass as full of himself as Shawn Echkardt would call all of the chaos in the aftermath of his attempt to knee-cap Kerrigan "changing the course of history".
  • We Used to Be Friends: Tonya and Nancy really were friends before the incident and had similar interests, which makes Tonya chagrined that the public put Nancy on a pedestal.
  • Wham Line:
    • Shawn admitting he sent the death threat that unnerved Tonya to the point of refusing to skate.
    • Tonya being told she's never allowed to skate again. Keep in mind she never finished high school and has no real skills outside of the sport, so her entire life really is skating.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: In the end we're informed how everybody's doing more than twenty years after the fact:
    • Jeffnote  is happily married with children.
    • Lavona is rumored to live alone behind a porn shop.
    • Tonya has a landscaping and deck-building business. She wants everyone to know that she's a good mother.
    • The film does not explicitly mention where Shawn is now. If paying attention to the filming style, one can correctly guess that he's no longer living.note 
  • You Bastard!:
    • About halfway through the film, Tonya admonishes the audience for only being interested in "The Incident" and not her personal story.
    • Tonya directly calls out the audience for turning against her during the Incident, and explicitly describes them as abusers just like her mother and her husband. How much of this accusation is valid and how much of this is her Never My Fault tendencies is up to the viewer.