In a sport of princesses, Tonya Harding was the perpetual toad: a trashy, too-brash outsider whose mind-blowing axels and sheer athleticism could never quite make up for the fact that she didn’t fit the demure, spangled mold of an ideal figure skater. Raised but hardly nurtured by a chain-smoking waitress (Allison Janney, a viper in Tootsie glasses and a mushroom-cap haircut), Tonya steadily clawed her way up the junior ranks, thanks mostly to pure willpower and the proxy parenting of a coach (Julianne Nicholson) who tried her best to steer her wild-card charge. What set Harding’s destiny, though, was the arrival of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the dim-bulb paramour and protector whose wonky scheme to take down his wife’s rival Nancy Kerrigan would go down in Olympics infamy.
Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) frames the movie as a faux documentary stuffed with flashbacks, talking heads, and fourth-wall-breaking asides. His form of satire can be a blunt instrument; it’s hard to tell sometimes whether he wants to be the Coen brothers, Christopher Guest, or just Spinal Tap on ice. But he’s also working from a script where the truth was irrefutably stranger than any fiction. And though the physical abuse Harding endures leaves an ugly bruise on its high-camp ’90s nostalgia, there’s something genuinely electric about the narrative’s headlong tumble into madness. The skating scenes, too, are thrilling, but Robbie is the real revelation. In a performance that goes far beyond bad perms and tabloid punchlines, she’s a powerhouse: a scrappy, defiant subversion of the American dream. You won’t just find yourself rooting for this crazy kid; you might even fall a little bit in love. A-