Here are some thoughts on a couple of current, high-profile movies, both of which feature connections between mothers or fathers and their offspring.
The title character in I, TONYA is of course Tonya Harding, the wannabe Olympic figure skating contender who deals with the machinations of a mother-from-hell. The latter is portrayed by Allison Janney, in a performance as in-your-face ferocious as J.K. Simmons’ work as a music conservatory teacher-from-hell in WHIPLASH. Tonya, by the way, is played by Margot Robbie, who proves that her acting talent extends way beyond her obvious sex appeal.
Back in the day, Tonya Harding’s plight was headline news, and it transcended whatever her involvement was in the notorious knee-smashing of Nancy Kerrigan, her rival on the ice. And given the issues she faces, combined with her personality, the only approach to telling her story just may be to script and structure it as a bizarre, semi-comic entertainment. In this regard, the makers of I, TONYA have succeeded smashingly. Still, at the core of I, TONYA is the physical and psychological abuse inflicted on her by her mother and, while watching I, TONYA, I could not help but think: We all are impacted by our upbringing and the love and support (or lack of love and support) we receive from our parents and elders.
We are so lucky if we have parents and elders who shower us with love, who mentor us positively. We are not so lucky if our parents are closer in their behavior to that of Tonya Harding’s mother-from-hell. Those young people who fit into the latter category must transcend their roots, stand up to the abuse, and forge their own futures. Granted, this is no easy task, particularly for those who are sensitive and vulnerable. Sadly, as we see in I, TONYA, Tonya Harding was for the most part unable to get beyond her mother’s manipulation. In this regard, I, TONYA is, at its core, a cautionary tale.
MOLLY’S GAME also is a fact-based tale-- these days, so many films are fact-based-- about a young girl whose dreams are linked to her athletic ability. Only here, the title character, Molly Bloom, is a skier, rather than a figure skater, and her father, while tough-minded and demanding, is anything but sadistically abusive. His approach is to dispense some tough love to Molly. Early on, an athletic injury shatters Molly’s Olympic-sized dream. So instead of finishing college and becoming a lawyer, this driven young woman ends up running a high-stakes, and highly illegal, poker game. Her regular players include the super-rich, name athletes, name Hollywood celebrities.
MOLLY’S GAME works because of its super-high-speed screenplay and direction; it is the belated directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin. But primarily, it is a showcase for Jessica Chastain, who is perfectly cast as Molly Bloom: a character who is, in the end, multi-dimensional. It also can be added that, as it depicts the intricacies of its father-daughter relationship, MOLLY’S GAME is the total opposite of I, TONYA. In MOLLY’S GAME, there is room for parent-child reconciliation. But this is not so in I, TONYA.
Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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