The Reel Review
This 1986 documentary from Sandra Luckow is a profile of then unknown 15-year-old skater Tonya Harding, which helped provide the inspiration for Margot Robbie’s 2018 Oscar-nominated film, I, Tonya. The film follows 5’1″ Harding’s quest for her first shot at US Nationals in 1986, where she would place sixth. Five years later, Harding would win the title, after becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition.
Shot on VHS tape and less than an hour long, Luckow’s documentary is a quick, fascinating time capsule of Harding’s bleak teenage existence. Living in poverty with an emotionally abusive mother, Harding describes a brother who is a thief and an older sister who ran away at 13 to become a prostitute. She shares all of this, while gamely pursuing her beloved figure skating despite being a complete outcast among its wealthier competitors.
Seeing Harding’s coach and choreographer take her shopping to “class up” her act is heartbreaking, as an emotionally beat down Harding scowls with disbelief at very prospect of being pretty or confident enough to wear the elegant long black dress. Anyone wondering if Allison Janney’s Oscar-winning performance in I, Tonya as Harding’s mother was hammed up will realize it was eerily accurate after seeing this documentary. Harding’s phone call to her mother after the event is particularly sad – proof of the damaging effects of unloving families on their children.
• Sandra Luckow made her film as a senior project for the then newly-formed Film Studies major at Yale University. It was the first time a film won the university’s Louis Sudler Prize.
• Sandra Luckow was director/producer of the 2018 film That Way Madness Lies, a documentary about a man with untreated schizophrenia and America’s dysfunctional mental health system.
• Tonya Harding currently lives with her husband Joseph and son Gordon (who was born in 2011) in Vancouver, Washington where she works in landscaping and deck building and still skates frequently for fun.