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'I, Tonya' earns near-perfect marks for execution

Movie follows main character from childhood through 1994 Olympics
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Margot Robbie (Tonya Harding) and Sebastian Stan (Jeff Gillooly) capture the essence of the characters they portray in the film 'I, Tonya.' -courtesy of NEON

Here's what you need to know most about I, Tonya, the new feature-length dark comedy starring Margot Robbie and Allison Janney that has Oscar buzz swirling around it and -- somehow -- revisits the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal of 1994 in a refreshing and not-done-before way: It's really, really good.

The movie, which hits select theatres Dec. 8 and then opens nationwide in subsequent weeks thereafter, is all at once a Harding biopic, a fantastic sports film and a look inside the drama that surrounded the "whack heard 'round the world" and its kooky cast of characters 24 years later.

I, for one, can't wait to see it again.

Here's what you also need to know about it: It's not what you're expecting it to be. This isn't solely a dark piece about Harding and the seriousness of what the cronies around her did. Nor is it a be-all, end-all figure skating movie, in which the filmmakers get every detail of the sport and its nuanced competitions and Harding's complicated history (and character) right.

It is, however, a well-done piece of Hollywood craft that begins with this startling scene: A 3-year-old Harding is on the ice for her first lesson, and her mother, LaVona Harding -- played brilliantly by Janney -- is pushing her toward coach Diane Rawlinson. A cigarette droops from LaVona's mouth, and she is refusing to take "no" for an answer.

From there, the viewer is swept through Harding's early years in the sport, including LaVona's expletive-laced mumblings from the boards at practice and Tonya's first meeting with future husband Jeff Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan).

What the movie doesn't shy away from as it takes you from childhood Tonya to teenage Tonya (enter Robbie as the lead character) to triple-axel-jumping Tonya is abrasiveness: The violence with Gillooly starts early, and scenes with LaVona can be cringeworthy due to the langauge she directs at her daughter (and the words Tonya uses back). How close to reality this is, we don't know, but one thing is for certain: Director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers do nothing halfway. The dialogue, the violence, the character building, the skating on the big screen? It's all well done.

The skating doesn't take a back seat, either. Current senior competitors Heidi Munger and Anna Malkova were used as skating doubles to film the practice and competition scenes, while Robbie -- who had never heard of Harding until the project was brought to her (she grew up in Australia, with little TV at home) -- worked with choreographer Sarah Kawahara to finetune her own on-ice presence.

The triple axel gets its due, the movie building a dramatic scene at the 1991 U.S. Championships in Minneapolis, where Harding first lands the jump. Her rocky relationship with the jump -- which would eventually abandon her -- is a continued theme throughout, an ode to both Harding's outlandish athleticism and her willingness to try something that others weren't (and, for the most part, still aren't today).

And then there are her relationships, first with LaVona and then with Gillooly. They're both dissected with precision and quick-lipped hilarity, including Tonya's mother joining her and Jeff on their first date, when LaVona asks him awkward questions about his sex life and Tonya draws out an expected "Mommmm."

There is also an attempt to address as many plotlines as possible: Tonya's struggle throughout the years with trying to please skating judges; Gillooly's goofball of a sidekick, Shawn Eckhardt; Tonya and Nancy's pre-1992 relationship; Tonya's switch from Rawlinson to Dody Teachman; and the title character's little-talked-about relationship with her father, with whom she went hunting as a kid.

That's not to say there are not faults with the movie. At times, it dives into scenes that -- with a certain character narrating from present day -- flash back to a heightened situation, leaving the viewer to wonder if what just happened was part of the true narrative or artistic hyperbole. In one, Harding beats Nancy Kerrigan in a hallway, blood splattering onto her face (obviously fiction); in another, Harding fires a shotgun at Gillooly as he storms out of their house after another fight ("This didn't really happen," she tells you, straight into the camera).

Harding is made to be the victim through much of it, in that sort of way where a movie wants you to like its star, even if that star isn't meant to be likeable. There's this feeling about the lens that follows Tonya that makes you feel sympathetic toward her, even though, as the plot progresses, she continues to be on the wrong side of what is right in any given situation.

The movie's buildup to January 1994, and then the aftermath and lead-up to the Lillehammer Games, is appropriate and reminds us how wildly idiotic the whole thing was. Why was Tonya trying to track down the name of the rink where Nancy trained in Massachusetts? That's a scene. What happened when Tonya decided to go to the FBI and throw Gillooly under the bus? That's a scene.

Perhaps this is why the film satisfies me as a viewer the way it does: This is a highbrow, nothing-held-back Hollywood treatment of arguably the single most fascinating sports story of our time. The costumes are deadpan from what we saw in the 1980s and '90s, the skating scenes shot to satisfy even the most critical eye. And the writing, the dialogue, the ability to go dark and sad and then funny and then fantastical all at once appears to give the story light when it's actually one of true heaviness.

Hollywood is good at that.

This is not a historical account of what happened in the Harding-Kerrigan saga, though moviegoers may take it as that. People will park themselves in front of their TVs in February to watch the Olympic coverage in PyeongChang and turn to each other and go, "Hey, did you see I, Tonya?"

It is, however, a fair treatment of the insanity that was. It's more than a good movie -- it's a great movie, one I highly recommend you go see. Don't expect to love or hate Tonya or Nancy more than you already do (wherever you fall in that strange game of "either or"), but do expect to enjoy yourself. I, Tonya puts figure skating back into the mainstream, at a time when it has struggled to capture the imagination of a sporting (and general) public the way that it once did.

Let's throw it back to the old judging system just for the movie's sake, shall we? I give it 5.9s across the board. It's a winner.