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‘I, Tonya’ takes the gold

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya”

It’s pretty rare that we reevaluate and reconsider our low expectations. In the case of Tonya Harding—subject of the new film “I, Tonya,”—mine were low because I lived through her 15 minutes. There’s even a “Seinfeld” episode with Harding’s avatar playing understudy to a hospitalized Bette Midler, who, unprepared to take the lead role in the stage version of “Rochelle, Rochelle,” winds up crying over her untied boot laces.

I thought “I, Tonya” would be regurgitation instead of revelation. Turns out director Craig Gillespie’s (“Lars and the Real Girl”) wry, funny examination is much more than the sum of its tabloid, pop culture parts.

You know the story. Harding (here portrayed as a child by McKenna Grace, and later by Margot Robbie) is a driven and talented figure skater, renowned for being the first woman to land the triple axel in an international competition before becoming an Olympic contender. Her domineering, awful mother—and manager—(a blazing Allison Janney) seems incapable of praise.

After she falls short of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver)—whose flair and refined background are clearly more suited to the taste of the snooty judges—Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) hatches a misguided plan to attack the squeaky-clean Kerrigan’s character.

That goes awry when two of Gillooly’s dipshit cohorts, Shawn Eckhardt and Shane Stant (Paul Walter Hauser and Ricky Russert), decide to kneecap Kerrigan instead. The rest is ‘90s history. As Stan’s Gillooly says, “I became a verb.”

You can perceive Harding as the opportunist she was portrayed to be—too talented for her station in life, ridiculed for her roots (both of hair and family) by an establishment that prizes poise. Or you can view her as a victim of familial dysfunction and domestic abuse.  Harding’s desire for approval flourished during the seminal 20th-century trifecta of professional wrestling, melodramatic talk shows (a la Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera), and the birth of tabloid television news. Gawkers and rubes who likely never cared about figure skating before suddenly felt invested in the sensationalism.

What’s brilliant about the script by Steven Rogers (“P.S. I Love You”) is how it contextualizes Harding in a way that the feeding frenzy back then never did. Gillespie and Rogers find the heart in it all and execute it like some Scorsese-inspired populist gem—with narration, fourth-wall breaks, and pivotal scenes cut to an extensive soundtrack of period-pulsing pop songs. Stellar performances, particularly from Janney and Robbie, bolster the tightrope balance between the deadpan absurdity of the story and the resigned reminiscences of those telling it.

“I, Tonya” is a vibrant and vastly entertaining surprise that, like its namesake, makes the most of what it’s got to work with.

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