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Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) pleads her case to a judge in “I, Tonya.” [Neon]

Movie review: You, the viewer, will have unexpected fun with ‘I, Tonya’

If you don’t know anything about the controversial events surrounding the figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in early 1994, and you intend to see this movie, you’re in for a flabbergasting story. But even if you are aware of what went down on that cold Detroit night (it involved someone being struck with a blunt object), you’ll still be flabbergasted by what’s told in the film.

“I, Tonya” isn’t exactly a proper biography of Tonya Harding, who came out of a white trash background to become a renowned competitive skater. Nor is it specifically about the “incident” that she became best (or worst) known for. It’s a movie about bad parenting, abusive relationships, the unhealthy lure of fame, and the lust for winning at all costs.

Yes, this is a movie filled with all sorts of negative elements. But it’s astoundingly irreverent, it refuses to take itself seriously (except for the portions of it that are nothing but serious), and it’s often incredibly funny. “I, Tonya” features powerhouse performances from Margot Robbie (who also produced it) as Tonya Harding, and Allison Janney as her dreadful mother, LaVona Golden, as well as an impeccable supporting cast, with outstanding contributions from Sebastian Stan as Harding’s dumb-as-a-mule husband Jeff Gillooly, and Paul Walter Hauser as his even stupider friend Shawn Eckhardt.

Based on interviews with Harding and Gillooly that were conducted by Steven Rogers while he was prepping his script, it starts out as what appears to be a standard biopic, with the actors, in character, being interviewed a couple of decades after the events that they’re discussing. A flashback to 40 years earlier introduces little Tonya (Mckenna Grace), already a strong skater, being shamelessly pushed on skating coach Diane Rawlinson (Juliane Nicholson) by her mom. (Warning to viewers: Janney, who will be Oscar nominated, is appallingly and hilariously vulgar.)

Jumping backward and forward in carefully structured fits and starts, the script stays focused on how talented the kid is and how awful her manipulative mom is. One of her reprimands after a competition is, “You skated like a graceless bull dyke.” We also look in on the men in Tonya’s life: Her dad had enough of her mom’s aberrant behavior, and walked out on the family; her first boyfriend, Gillooly, at first smitten with her, winning her over by declaring, “Skating is your superpower,” soon turned violent, ready to lash out against her for any slight reason.

Maybe all of the mistreatment made her stronger, or weaker, or more determined to succeed. The film is more of a study of how her circumstances led to so many bad choices in life, like marrying Jeff Gillooly, whose nastiness, in between brief bouts of niceness, kept growing.

But two components have such a tremendous amount of entertainment value, they counterbalance the uncomfortable aspects. The script breaks away from the semi-narrative structure of the story, and introduces a producer from the TV show “Hard Copy” (Bobby Cannavale), who appears as a sort of Greek chorus, telling us what’s going to happen next. And director Craig Gillespie (“The Finest Hours”) regularly has his characters break the fourth wall, meaning they step out of the film and speak right to the audience, which is both surprising and funny.

Even when everything goes wrong for everyone involved, there’s still that all-important thread of humor that remains intact. Even when the competitive spirit — especially the one between Harding and Kerrigan (played by Caitlin Carver, in a part that’s really only a couple of cameos) — gets heated, and a plan to “psych out” Kerrigan goes awry due to idiocy, there’s some absurd and sometimes very dark humor waiting to jump out.

A short segment of the film is dedicated to “the incident,” but a lot of it concerns what happened afterward. Irregular returns to the “interview” sequences hammer home some insight on Harding and Gillooly. But aside from the bizarre characterization from Janney, the film belongs to Robbie. She was good in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and she was giddy in “Suicide Squad.” This time she’s great.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“I, Tonya”

Written by Steven Rogers; directed by Craig Gillespie

With Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale

Rated R

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