Craig Gillespie has enjoyed a decade of marginal directing success with solid works that include Lars and the Real Girl, Million Dollar Arm and, to a lesser extent, The Finest Hours. Knowing that the talent has always been there, the filmmaker takes his career to a whole new level with the upcoming Oscar hopeful, I, Tonya. The Philadelphia Film Festival Opening Night selection didn't disappoint and, in fact, it not only set the bar for the entire 11-day long affair, I, Tonya sets the bar for the rest of the cinematic year.
Growing up as a self described redneck under the grueling and demanding guidance of her unaffectionate mother (Allison Janney), Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) drops out of school and dedicates her life to the sport of figure skating. But as she falls in love with a local buffoon named Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and becomes embroiled in a bitter and toxic relationship, Tonya also reaches new heights on the ice rink by making history as the first female skater to successfully land a triple axel in competition. Yet, when a rival U.S. skater named Nancy Kerrigan begins to pose a threat to her Olympic success, an "incident" occurs that will forever define Tonya's life.
Gillespie's wildly amusing and uber self-aware black comedy lures its audience by commanding a wide array of emotions. I, Tonya contains no shortage of laugh-out loud humor, often centered around copious amounts of stupidity and vulgarity, but the film also does a remarkable job of building empathy for its notorious title character. Margot Robbie delivers a career best performance, one that will, at the very least, land her in the Oscar discussion. Similarly, her onscreen matriarch, played phenomenally by Allison Janney, feels primed for some awards season success as well. And don't be fooled, I, Tonya is far from a movie about figure skating. Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers dive deep into the background and upbringing of Tonya Harding with hopes of shining some clarity on the senseless pre-Olympic assault of Nancy Kerrigan that made Harding a nationwide headline. While a reliance on the most unreliable of sources ultimately leaves an open-ended debate as to the depth of Harding's overall involvement in the incident, I, Tonya plays to an uptempo beat and never shies away from an opportunity to break the fourth wall. Unapologetically profane and remarkably edgy, I, Tonya clearly stands out as one of 2017's finer films.