2017 MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL: In one of the most unconventional biopics to make its way onto our screens in years, Craig Gillespie‘s darkly comedic yet incredibly moving “I, Tonya” is an avalanche of greatness that sustains its high energy and witty beats.  Headlined by an unbelievable Margot Robbie, the film’s quirky script makes Tonya Harding a caring, unconventional fallen hero.  Immaculately made and faultless in its editing, the characters are utterly reachable and is insightfully conceived.  A gem of a film.

I, Tonya” tells the story of competitive ice skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) who rises among the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.  From difficult beginnings with her ferocious mother LaVona (played by Allison Janney), all seems to be a “Cinderella story” until her husband Jeff Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan) gets involved.

On the surface, the casting of Margot Robbie seemed to be way off base.  A beautiful Australian actress who was introduced to us the Barbie doll wife in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” seemed ill-equipped to capture the awkward and peculiar personality of the infamous figure skater.  Robbie goes well beyond a surface impression as she penetrates the psyche of a doomed figure and makes you care.  She captures the essence of a woman, who has been a lifelong victim of a dysfunctional family and later on, the media.  Upbeat, excellent, and measures how far we’ve come in our obsession with the underdog.  Spoiler alert: not that far.

Allison Janney‘s turn as a diabolical mother is uncompromising and unsettling, just as much as she is hilarious.  Her acute understanding of a mother with heavy smoking and drinking habits, is unflinching as she pours herself in, mind, body, and soul.  Sebastian Stan‘s Jeff Gillooly is relentless, even bringing a surprising sensitivity to a role that would normally have audiences firmly against him.

One of the film’s interesting standouts is Paul Walter Hauser‘s scene-stealing turn as Shawn Eckhardt.  A comedic and utterly enthralling examination of a man with delusions of grandeur abducts the audience into his funny and ridiculous world.  As should be expected, Julianne Nicholson‘s presence is poised and felt in her brief role as Tonya’s coach.

Steven Rogers‘ lively and whimsical script latches firmly onto the viewer’s attention, not long before releasing us by credits end.  Director Gillespie’s technical team is damn near perfect as Nicholas Karakatsanis‘ camera work feels larger than life while Tatiana S. Riegel‘s editing is top-notch. 

If there’s one thing that feels “off,” the visual effects in the skating sequences could have been more polished as you can tell that Robbie’s face is digitally placed onto another skater’s body.  It might have also been beneficial to get another actress to play Tonya and Jeff at ages 15 as Robbie and Stan’s portrayal of teenagers is beyond their physical capabilities.  With this said, both instances are totally forgivable as what it gives is so much better than where it missteps.

I, Tonya” is a fragrant smash; exhilarating as it deconstructs a mythical creature of the media past, giving it heart and humor.  It’s completely worthy of every award that can and will be thrown at this awards season.  An Oscar-worthy piece that hypnotizes, leaving you wishing it would never, ever end.

“I, Tonya” is screening at the Middleburg Film Festival, is distributed by NEON, and opens in theaters on Dec. 8.

GRADE: (★)

Check out the newest Oscar Predictions and see where “I, TONYA” ranks!

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Clayton Davis--prolific writer and autism awareness advocate of Puerto Rican and Black descent, known for his relentless passion, dedication, and unique aptitude. Over the course of a decade, he has been criticizing both film and television extensively. To date, he has been either featured or quoted in an array of prominent outlets, including but not limited to The New York Times, CNN.com, Variety, Deadline, Los Angeles Times, FOX 5, Bloomberg Television, AOL, Huffington Post, Bloomberg Radio, The Wrap, Slash Film, and the Hollywood Reporter. Growing up in the Bronx, Clayton’s avid interest in the movie world began the moment he first watched "Dead Poets Society” at just five years of age. While he struggled in English class all throughout grade school, he dived head first into writing, ultimately taking those insufficiencies and transforming them into ardent writings pertaining to all things film, television, and most importantly, the Academy Awards. In addition to crafting a collection of short stories that give a voice to films that haven’t made it to the silver screen, Clayton currently serves as the Founding Editor of AwardsCircuit.com. He also holds active voting membership at various esteemed organizations, such as the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Broadcast Television Journalists Association, African-American Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Online, Black Reel Awards, and International Press Academy. Furthermore, Clayton obtained his B.A. degree in American Studies and Communications.