I was into my third day of student teaching back in 2006, when my mentor teacher Mrs. Thomas, a twenty-five year veteran, approached me before the final period of the school day, and informed me I would be teaching the next class. Bewildered is the best word I can use to describe the mixture of emotions that had overtaken my mind and body. My immediate question to her, and I’m not sure how intelligible I sounded, especially with the nervous cadence to my voice, was – Why? Why would she be entrusting me to teach the theme of jealousy in Shakespeare’s “Othello” to her senior, honors English class. She paused for a moment to consider my question, and then responded, as best I can remember, as follows: Jonathan, we can discuss educational philosophy. I can teach you how to differentiate instruction in order to effectively reach the maximum number of students in the class. I can, and I will, provide you with examples of, and have you practice, writing effective lesson plans that incorporate appropriate breakdowns of time to spend on each portion of your lesson, but the most important thing I can do, and the most important thing I can teach you to do as a future educator, is to encourage. I know you’re going to make mistakes, you would be a robot if you didn’t, but now is the time for you to make mistakes and learn from them.
Encourage me she did. Mrs. Thomas never got angry with me, when I stumbled. She never belittled me in front of the students if I failed to mention something of importance during a lesson. Instead, she spoke to me in private, pointed out areas I needed improvement in, and whatever information I failed to mention in the previous lesson, she would orchestrate a way for me to bring it up the next time I taught, so as not to embarrass myself in front of the students. Throughout my entire time student teaching, she helped to prepare me for the following year, when I would be the only teacher in the classroom, and making all of the decisions. I learned a tremendous amount from her, and I was exceptionally fortunate to have had such a wonderful person for a mentor, who did nothing but encourage me at every turn to be my best self.
The remembrance I just wrote about is what came to mind when I finished watching the film “I, Tonya.” Leaving aside the ‘incident’ with Nancy Kerrigan, as it is referred to in the film, Harding, who despite the trajectory her life took, had a tremendous talent for figure skating, but from the moment she entered the world, she was seemingly abused both verbally and physically. The encouragement she did receive during her formative years by her chain-smoking, foul-mouthed mother, was more to make sure Tonya could serve the role as a future money earner, by becoming a performer in The Ice Capades, as opposed to encouraging Tonya’s abilities to their utmost potential. As the film showcases, for a while, Tonya did, in spite of the obstacles she had to deal with, strive to be her best self, but it was a hard fought battle the entire time.
The film begins in Portland, Oregon where Harding grew up. Two young actresses, Maizie Smith and Mckenna Grace (Gifted), portray Harding up until the movie moves to her teenage years. From the age of fifteen onward, BAFTA and Golden Globe, nominee, Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad), completely embodies the role of the former figure skater. From the outset, it was a struggle for Harding. Sadly, those who sat in judgment of her, awarded her lower scores because she didn’t fit the image they wanted her to project; even though she was able to perform a very difficult move, the triple axel, which prior to Harding performing it, had never been successfully executed by an American skater during a competition. That feat, however, was still not enough, as one judge even candidly admits to Harding during the film. No doubt, Harding was a bit of a rebel when it came to skating. She didn’t dress as other skaters did, and instead of performing to classical music like her contemporaries, she would opt to skate to songs such as “Sleeping Bag,” by ZZ Top.
While the ice offered Harding a wonderful escape, minus her treatment from the skating judges, her home life wasn’t good. Her mother, LaVona Golden, played by six-time, Emmy winner, Allison Janney (Mom) was the antithesis of a nurturer, typically berating Tonya, and on occasion as the movies showcases, engaging in physical violence against her. For example, one time she threw a knife at Tonya, which cut Harding’s arm. In addition to her scenes, throughout the film, Janney’s character is shown sitting on a couch, wearing a fur coat, her pet bird perched atop her shoulder, as she offers acerbic tongued commentary on her daughter and other key figures involved in Harding’s journey to reach the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and its aftermath.
The film is shot in a faux-documentary style based on interviews conducted with Harding, and her former, abusive husband, Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan (Captain America: Civil War). Unfortunately for Harding, Gillooly was the first man she met that showed an interest in her, and he was initially kind and supportive, but it didn’t take long before his behavior dissolved into a quick to anger, physically abusive, Neanderthal, who played games with Harding’s emotions, promising to never hurt again, only to inevitably wind up doing so, shortly thereafter. Furthermore, Gillooly’s friend, the heavyset, delusional, dim-witted Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), appears throughout the film. Originally, as mentioned in the movie, he was supposed to just mail threatening letters to one of Harding’s skating rivals, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). Instead, he took the money Gillooly gave him to do so, and paid two equally moronic individuals, Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), and Derrick Smith (Anthony Reynolds) to kneecap Kerrigan with a baton, with the plan of keeping her from competing; a plan, which failed. Kerrigan would go onto earn a silver medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics while Harding finished eighth.
As the narrative shifts between Harding, Gillooly, and LaVona’s alternating takes on the events that transpired over two-decades earlier, two other characters offer their perspectives: Harding’s former, skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson); and “Hard Copy” reporter, Martin Maddox, portrayed by two-time, Emmy winner, Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire).
“I, Tonya” premiered on September 8, 2017 at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film was directed by Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) and written for the screen by Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers). Parts biography, drama, and sports, the movie has a runtime of 119 minutes. Those seeking a film that deals primarily with the incident involving the attack on Nancy Kerrigan will be disappointed. The film showcases what happened, but it is only a small portion of its runtime. Primarily, “I, Tonya,” is about Harding’s journey to the infamous moment that altered her life. In the end, for her involvement in the crime, Harding received three years probation, had to perform five hundred hours of community service, was fined $160,000, and for someone who had been skating virtually from the time she began walking, she received the ultimate punishment, a lifetime banishment from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.
Plot details are not something I felt needed to be kept guarded in this review, because the story, and the outcome of what took place, are so well documented. From start to finish, even knowing the story and what the eventual outcome would be, I was never bored while watching the film. The 75th Golden Globe Awards air this Sunday, January 7th on NBC at 8:00pm; “I’ Tonya” has been nominated for three: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture for Allison Janney – Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture for Margot Robbie – and Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. I would not be surprised or displeased if either Janney or Robbie took home the gold.