You may think you know the infamous Tonya Harding story, but the new biopic about the figure skater Americans loved to hate is not what you’re expecting. Eschewing a traditional biopic approach, I, Tonya filters the tragedy of Harding’s life and the media’s fascination with the 1994 Nancy Kerrigan knee-whacking scandal through a lens of Coen brothers-esque dark humor. It’s a blisteringly funny and sympathetic portrait of the Olympian led by an outstanding, confident performance from Margot Robbie.

I, Tonya, written by Steve Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real GirlThe Finest Hours) wastes no time establishing its biting comedic approach. A hilarious opening title card reads: “The events of this film are based on irony free, wildly contradictory, and totally true interviews.” Contradictions are exactly what ensue from the film’s framing device, which introduces the subjects behind the Olympic media fiasco in talking-head interviews set in the present day. First we meet Robbie’s Tonya, then her violent, numbskull of an ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). There’s also Allison Janney as Tonya’s cold, acerbic mother LaVona Golden, Julianna Nicholson as Tonya’s skating coach Diane Rowlinson, Paul Walter Hauser as Jeff’s idiot best friend Shawn Eckhardt, and a spray-tanned Bobby Cannavale plays a Hard Copy producer.

The film charts Tonya’s earliest days of ice skating, her abusive relationship with Jeff (as well as her mother), and then, of course, the infamous incident. In 1994 two men hired by Gillooly led an attack on Kerrigan (played by Caitlin Carver) a month before she was set to skate at the Olympics, striking her landing leg with a police baton. It all supposedly started with Gillooly and Harding planning to spook her competitor with death threats, and Harding claimed she had no knowledge of the actual attack.

But I, Tonya doesn’t spend an excessive amount of time on the Kerrigan episode; most of it is devoted to Harding’s story, narrated primarily by Tonya and Jeff. Other characters take turns telling their versions of certain events, often interrupting one another to deny someone else’s accusation. It’s a playful nod at the fictional nature of biopics, and a reminder that as familiar we may be with the Harding-Kerrigan incident, no one really knows the full story.

At other times the characters break the fourth wall Goodfellas-style to inject their own commentary. Sometimes this works brilliantly, amplifying the film’s in-your-face energy. At other times it’s jarring and breaks up I, Tonya’s dramatic momentum, like when Jeff smashes Tonya’s face into a wall and Robbie turns to tell us matter of factly, “He beat the s– out of me,” before present-day Tonya resumes her narration.

In the first two thirds of I, Tonya the characters are keenly self-aware of our fascination with Harding. The film knows we can’t wait to get to the Kerrigan incident. But the last third of the film turns on us. No longer laughing along with us at the too-crazy-to-be-true nature of this story, Robbie’s present-day Tonya now puts the spotlight on the audience, calling them out for their urge to vilify her. “You’re all my attackers, too,” Robbie says, guilt-tripping viewers for gleefully eating up the gossipy drama.

I, Tonya‘s farcical tone is certainly risky, and it could be read as exploitative at points. It left me with questions about the sensational nature of the movie itself – is I, Tonya indulging in the very thing it criticizes? Someone could make that case, especially with the wild tonal shifts in the film’s scenes of domestic abuse. But I, Tonya never felt offensive or cruel to me, and that’s mostly because it sculpts its characters, even the ones with irredeemable qualities, with dignity. There’s a sincerity to the film that’s committed to humanizing Harding and depicting her as more than a punchline.

I, Tonya also features some great work from Gillespie, who brings stylish directing brings a punchy energy to the movie. Watching the real Harding’s competition videos on YouTube is one thing, but getting up-close with Robbie and seeing the intensity across her face – especially in the recreation of her upsetting Lillehammer breakdown – feels like we’re getting a private look at the pressures she faced. And Robbie brings a real gravity to those moments. As great as she is, she's nearly overshadowed by Janney. She’s pure gold in a riotously funny performance that includes a gag with her pet parrot and too many scene-stealing lines to count.

I, Tonya is one of the best surprises out of the Toronto International Film Festival. We may not walk away from it knowing the truth about Harding’s involvement or the details of the notorious attack, but that’s not the point. The film asks us to try to view its subjects, even the awful ones, with more sympathy than we may have been inclined to initially. By the end, Gillespie manages to transform a scorned punchline into a lovable heroine.


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