The film centers around the premise of interviews by those who knew Harding best. They all sit in chairs, staring into the camera and answering questions based on their perspectives. As the reenactments play out, they become surreal in how they explore the events. To some, Tonya is painted as a vitriolic figure. Her mother (Allison Janney) is abusive, but adamant that she did it as a way to toughen her up. Yet at the center is the one figure who is allowed to break the fabric of this narrative, occasionally freezing a scene to explain her defense. It's Tonya herself, played by Margot Robbie in one of her fiercest roles yet. This is a story meant to be about redemption, and it does so in ways more common with GoodFellas than the Ice-Capades.
At the center is of course her dedication to her craft. She loves to skate and push herself. She never looks happier than in the middle of twirling through the air, landing some of the most impressive moves in ice skating history. Gillespie knows how to shoot these sequences, which adds to the awe of the entire film. You're left realizing how much the hard work means to her. As she stretches out her arms in hopes of receiving welcomed praise, she has never looked more desperate. She is a sports figure whose only moment of respect comes in those few seconds that the audience claps. As the story goes, her life remains tragic and her face gets battered, but she keeps going. She's inspired to skate because it's the root of her happiness, and her lack of "traditional American family" keeps her from getting it more often.
It doesn't help that the figures throughout the film are a bit repulsive. As mentioned, her mother is abusive and never says a nice thing. Her boyfriend (Sebastian Stan) assaults her almost every five minutes. There's no solace for Tonya, whose only gift throughout the movie is telling "her story." This is how she wants to be seen. Yet it's tough to say that the film does a great job of capturing this aspect because of how mean-spirited it winds up being. Tonya may be a tragic figure, but she does little that's redemptive in any meaningful way. She doesn't change throughout the film, save for a deeper resentment towards the general public that marginalized her. The story has changed, but Tonya is still in a lot of ways a person as terrible as the one she was depicted as to begin with.
Among the saving graces is Robbie's performance, which manages to capture every snarl with a sense of purpose. There are nails underneath that cigarette ready to claw your eyes out. She is bitter because that's how she was raised, only ever finding joy on the ice. She hides her pain behind make-up. As she applies it over a bruise, she smiles and looks desperate for acceptance. It's something she may never win, even if the trophies begin piling up. She is the bad girl who wants to be taken seriously, and it's the sad center of the film. There's not much beyond that that's necessarily exciting, but it definitely captures a woman scorned by everyone. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger "Imagine if someone loved that woman." Maybe she would be a better person but a worse skater. It's tough to really say.
The film's gimmicks add a little flair to the conventional sports movie. The style makes her seem like a gangster such as Henry Hill, trying to plead his case for pursuing the life that she did. It works thematically, but also feels like one of the film's weakest choices. Having the story break off into tangents shows just how difficult it is for one person to own this narrative, and that even when it's Tonya's story, it isn't hers entirely. The gimmicks are meant to provoke the viewer into thinking differently, but sometimes they serve little purpose. The more ridiculous sequences for instance are pinned with "She really did this." sentiments that add nothing to the overall story. It eventually becomes too reliant on saying things for the sake of a punchline. It's distracting, and never creates any sense of redemption for the characters.
I, Tonya is a unique sports movie in that it paints the life of a woman who has struggled her entire life for respect. In that way, it manages to be effective as a surface-level comedy about how tough the struggle really is. Robbie does a good job in the role, showing promise for playing tough women. However, the film's biggest strength remains in the ice skating sequences, of which are excellently shot. It's a tragedy what happened to Harding behind the scenes, but the film doesn't do enough with them to necessarily be more than pulpy, trashy fun. It tries to reinvent the Harding mythology but is fine accepting that she's still a bad person. Nothing changes over the film, even if the story does. What was it all for? Robbie is better than the material, and thankfully she makes it a passable movie with every last catty insult she hurls. Imagine what would've happened if the story was better. Maybe she would be putting in a career-defining performance instead of this.