Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl is a small marvel of gracious, empathetic filmmaking. Centered on a lonely, withdrawn man who engages in a tender love affair with a life-size doll, the film is primed for harsh mockery. Instead, Gillespie strikes a tone that afford all the characters a level of dignity. It is a bizarre truth, but it is their truth, and Gillespie does what he can to understand rather than judge, finding poignancy in the absurd. Gillespie has directed other films since Lars — some catastrophically ill-conceived and others simply easy to ignore — but going back to that early feature helps illustrate how strong his new film, I, Tonya, could have been. And it illuminates exactly where Gillespie went wrong.
Based on the true story of competitive figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), perhaps the only figure from that corner of the sporting world who can be called notorious, Gillespie’s new film is a proudly unconventional biopic. The storytelling is rambunctiously crafty, breaking the fourth wall and emphasizing the unreliability of the varied narrators as it traces Harding’s evolution from a wrong-side-of-the-tracks preternaturally gifted young skater to an intense competitor whose questionable supporters in her inner circle orchestrate a thuggish strategy for impeding a competitor. The film bluntly depicts Harding’s relationships with her toxic, domineering mother (Alison Janney) and her dim, violent first husband (Sebastian Stan).
The screenplay, credited to Steven Rogers, is bravely unsparing in considerations of the extra challenges Harding faced because of her upbringing in the lower echelons of the economic classes. Not only is it difficult for her to scrape together the resources for some of the spangled trappings expected on figure skaters, the judges and other ruling entities in her sport treat her dismissively, the disdain delivering setbacks in a sport where success is measured by judgements of taste rather than the emotionless determinations of a stopwatch. At its best, I, Tonya shows precisely how some people are forever kept distant from their aspirations because they don’t suit the preferred narrative of winners and losers.
But then there’s I, Tonya at its worst. Too often, Gillespie engages is the brand of condescension that Harding had to routinely fight against. While he remains largely sympathetic to his protagonist’s plight, Gillespie is too freely mocks those around her, most notably Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), the heavyset supposed bodyguard who was a key figure in the crime that made Harding a trailblazing personality in the launch of tabloid television. There’s undeniable accuracy to Hauser’s portrayal, but the film obviously skews him to emphasize intellectual barrenness manifesting as slovenly disgrace. The snideness of that tone starts to infect the film, drifting into other scenes, sequences, and characterizations. It’s not inherently the wrong way to depict the scenarios, but it is directly contrary to the film’s foundational thesis, that Harding deserved better.
If the overall film doesn’t always serve Harding well, the actress who plays her certainly does. Robbie is sensational as Harding, showing the drive, the pride, the frustration, and the vulnerability, sometimes all of the above in the flickering span of a few moments. With greater consistency than her fellow collaborators on the film, Robbie is honest but generous, affording Harding the simple yet important honor of striving to understand her context. Too often, I, Tonya relies on cartoonish buffoonery to illustrate the predicaments of its characters. Robbie doesn’t indulge in this shortcut. She plays the whole person, lost and pained, problematic and talented, and, above all else, willfully, cruelly misunderstood. As the film explicitly asserts, Harding became a punchline. Through her performance, Robbie restores some of the humanity that was once blithely stripped away.