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'I, Tonya': Tonya Harding biopic is black comedy, with a high degree of difficulty

Margot Robbie stars as disgraced, abused figure skater Tonya Harding in 'I Tonya.'

Margot Robbie in ‘I Tonya’
Margot Robbie in ‘I Tonya’Read moreNeon

We've all seen and loved the movie about the guy who can take a punch.

Who gets socked in the jaw, spits out an incisor, grins a gap-toothed smile, and wades back into the fray.

Can we stand to see that same movie about a woman?

The compelling and provocative I, Tonya puts that question to the test.

It's the story of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), although the story it tells will be new to many.

One of the points made in I, Tonya is that details of her saga — Harding was banned for life from competitive skating for her role in an attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan — were obscured by the O.J. Simpson scandal that followed hard on its heels.

And the crucial detail that I, Tonya wants you to know about Harding is that she was knocked around, quite literally, from an early age. First by her mother (Allison Janney), then by her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who, for Harding represented an extension of a pattern — intimacy intertwined with violence — that she learned at home.

Then there is the way the violence is portrayed. The movie is a pitch-black comedy, told with a wink and a smirk by unreliable narrators, who include Harding, her mother, and her husband — all presenting self-serving versions of the truth, often standing in arch contrast to the images we are shown.

It's easy enough to laugh when these accounts relate to the lunkheaded conspiracy enacted by Team Harding that left Kerrigan injured. But we also see Gillooly strike Harding (and vice versa), gasp-inducing moments that shift, just a few beats later, back to comedy.

I, Tonya suggests that it's taking its cue for the tone of these scenes from Harding herself — a hard-nosed woman who viewed domestic violence as just another pothole on the rough road that life laid out for her. She grew up poor in rural Oregon, watched her dad walk out, took abuse from her mother, and poured her rage into her skating.

"She skates better when she skates angry," says her mother, LaVona. Janney plays her as a rivetingly awful human being, but LaVona has a point. Tonya skated with a grudge. She skated against other women, and against the judges, who acknowledged her talent but gave her low marks because they didn't like her hand-sewn clothes or her classic-rock program music.

Because they didn't like her.

Still, they couldn't ignore her. Harding, the movie reminds us, was a phenom, an athletic skater who was the first female to land a triple axel in competition, and, to this day, is one of only six women to do so.

There is a touching moment (skillfully expressed by Robbie) of Harding landing the jump for the first time. It's unprecedented, it's pure, it's hers, and in that moment, she knows it. A woman who's spent her life looking to be validated has found something that can't be invalidated. It's an important moment for the film, exhibiting a strain of empathy that is not always easy to detect.

It wins her national prominence, as does her media-inflated rivalry with establishment princess Kerrigan, who became the target of a conspiracy that originated in the Harding camp. Was Tonya involved? The FBI says yes, but it's just as clear that Gillooly hired a doofus (played by Paul Walter Hauser), whose cloak-and-dagger fantasies inflated the original scheme beyond all proportion.

I, Tonya has been accused of looking down on its characters, but the tart and often-funny Steven Rogers dialogue marks Tonya and LaVona summa cum laude in the school of hard knocks. They're anything but stupid.

Tonya gets the last word, staring into the camera, adding the media and its consumers to her list of abusers. By this time, she's traded skating for boxing, still taking punches, still getting up.