TIFF 2017: I, Tonya

FASHION Reviews Everything TIFF

Toronto International Film Festival is mostly about cinema (obviously). But TIFF isn’t only about films. There are parties to attend, stars to spot on the street, and brand activations everywhere. It’s high time for all aspects of TIFF to get the same critical attention as the films.

Welcome to FASHION Reviews Everything TIFF-related. While this might not be an entirely comprehensive appraisal—it’s as impossible to be at every party as it is to see every film— if we attend anything linked to the Toronto International Film Festival in any way, we’ll review it here.

Having never been at the centre of a media circus, I can’t speak with any authority, but I get the sense that the 90s were perhaps the worst decade to become infamous. These days a scandal will explode then, after a day or two of social media obsession, the scandal will burn out, replaced by the next insane thing President Trump said (probably). In the 90s, scandals burned longer. Back then, like today, there was a rapacious media culture, but the new(ish) 24-hour cable news cycle doesn’t really compare to our contemporary landscape. With more sources of information/entertainment, we look for new stories constantly.

It’s too bad Tonya Harding wasn’t a figure skater today. Her drama might have faded away as quickly as Ken Bone or the Access Hollywood Tape. Instead, Tonya’s rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan has become the stuff of legend, even inspiring a prestige biopic, which premiered at TIFF on Friday.

The people behind I, Tonya understand what makes the story compelling—it’s right there in the title. Tonya Harding is a complex, infuriating, and fascinating individual. Raised by a villain of a mother, abused by her husband, she had undeniable skill—which was denied for several years because she didn’t represent what figure skating was supposed to be. You don’t often see classism play out so honestly, but that’s at the root of Tonya’s story—even if her lack of personal accountability didn’t exactly help her cause.

That’s actually the problem with I, Tonya. While the performances are great, the filmmakers don’t seem to know what kind of movie they are making—or how we should feel about Tonya, even now. The film is structured as a kind of mocumentary: it’s Harding’s life story punctuated by interviews and the odd break in the fourth wall. And mostly, it seems like it should be a comedy. Except there isn’t anything funny about the amount of abuse Tonya suffered at the hands of her mother and husband, first, then the media afterwards.

The director, in one of Tonya Harding’s interviews with the camera, very clearly indicts the audience for persecuting Harding—which is a fair charge, especially if you were following the story in real time back in the early 90s—but seems a tad hypocritical coming in a movie that has used Harding as a source of comedy up until that point. The end result is an attempt at a dark comedy with Coen Brother aspirations that instead feels just kind of mean, both to the subjects and the audience.

Still, the film is worth seeing largely because of the performances. Allison Janney is a pure, working class terror. Margot Robbie is defiant yet fragile.

Maybe the weirdness of the whole story—which I realize I didn’t explain, since I assumed it would be well known…but maybe it isn’t?—would have meant that, even today, it would have stayed in our consciousness past one or two news cycles. If not, this film is a worthy endeavour of bringing it back to mind with a little more nuance—if maybe still not enough.

– Tonya Harding had a hard life
– Probably not super funny IRL but in movie life, it kind of is?
– Good performances all around

Rating: ⛸ ⛸ ⚖

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