I'm sure I missed something, but did it really take 24 years before we finally got a knock-off of The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom? That's not exactly what I, Tonya is, though it's pretty good for a first approximation. The child of Positively True Adventures and The Wolf of Wall Street, now that gets us pretty much 100% of the way.

I, Tonya is a biopic of Tonya Harding, infamous figure skater who may have been involved in a plot to kneecap her most significant rival, Nancy Kerrigan, shortly before the 1994 Winter Olympics. I, Tonya takes the position that she wasn't, but it certainly not the big focus of the film; this is, instead, a movie about how Harding arrived at a point in life where a half-assed criminal conspiracy might have cropped up around her. The road map takes us through all of the expected beats: how she grew obsessed with figure skating as a child, her years as a prodigy, the push-back she received from the field on account of being graceless and blue-collar, her great triumph as the first American woman (and second woman overall) to land the daunting triple axel, and so on. It's a biopic, alright, but one of those every-now-and-then variations on the form that, without doing very much to obviously fight the laziest trends of its genre, still succeeds at being an extremely great version of itself.

That has almost everything to do with how the filmmakers - writer Steven Rogers, director Craig Gillespie - choose to frame the story. And this brings us back to The Positively True Adventures. Like that film, I, Tonya adopts the rough form of a documentary: it's built around the interviews Rogers conducted in the 2010s with Harding (played her by Margot Robbie), her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her estranged mother LaVona (Allison Janney), and the foundation of the film's narrative is the three of these characters fumbling their way around their own version of what happened across the years of Tonya's career, when she was at least briefly the single best figure skater on the face of the planet, with heavily mediated flashbacks springing out of their words.

Heavily mediated. I, Tonya is a tremendously ironic, cynical film, and it never lets you forget that everything you're seeing is filtered through at least the perspective of the people recalling these events around 20 years after the fact, and also through Rogers's interpretation of these interviews and after that the vast machinery of the filmmaking process. Learning "the truth" about Tonya Harding isn't something the film even pretends is going to be an option; instead, it asks us to consider how media narratives get made, how popular conceptions of events form, and how that might have absolutely nothing to do with facts. At one point, when re-enacting a story about the time she threatened Jeff with a shotgun, Tonya turns to the camera with an annoyed smile on her face to bluntly declare this particular anecdote "bullshit", an attempt by Gilloly to redirect the conversation about his own history of abuse. And these kind of fourth wall-breaking asides are a constant throughout the movie; narration hops back and forth between voice-over and onscreen dialogue, as the characters constantly stop being in their own present to address the years-later perspective of the viewer.

This is somewhat over-written and over-conceived, maybe; but it's not like modern cinema is so bloated with postmodern autocritiques of biopic storytelling that this feels anything but striking and unique. It's all part of the film's vulgar, sardonic, and bitterly cynical approach to its material, which involves an acidic sense of humor about the ugliest shit: grinding poverty, parental and spousal abuse, overt class-based bigotry. The line between "the film is mocking the people it depicts" and "the film is nervously laughing along with Tonya's vicious mockery of herself and everyone she ever knew, because who gives a shit anymore" is a thin one, and neither side of that line exactly promises an upbeat time at the movies. I, Tonya is caustic as hell; it's a movie in which the protagonist at one point looks straight into the camera to say that we're all bad people for being so interested in this story that we're watching a movie about it. Maybe that's self-serving hypocrisy from the filmmakers, but it still cuts like a razor.

Personally, a healthy dose of nihilistic cynicism about celebrity culture is aces by me, and I found the film's profane cruel irony to be generally hilarious and often incisive. But this is a huge "your mileage may vary" situation; humor is subjective and dark humor is really subjective, and it's hard to say how well this material might play for any given viewer. Some things, though, I'm a lot more willing to make objective claims about. Not all of these are good things: I at least mildly hate the film's overly bright color correction, which wants to look like 1980s film stock, and misses the mark by a lot (the use of faux-'80s video is, however, excellent). But mostly, I'm impressed, particularly by the film's terrific cast. Robbie, in particular, is at her easy, obvious career peak to date; it's not just that Tonya provides her with a meatier role than she's ever gotten, it's that she makes the most of this opportunity in an extraordinarily compelling physical performance. Robbie looks very little like Harding, and her game attempts at doing some of her own skating are more "damn good for an actor" than "damn good by any standard". But she's done an excellent job of evoking this script's idea of Harding, a young woman driven by a host of resentments, and with the world-class skill necessary to act against those people she resents. Robbie sells the idea of a down-rent, athletic rather than sophisticated Tonya perfectly: everything from the way she walks to what she does with her jaw to the way she telegraphs and inability to wear dresses suggests the little bundle of annoyance and rage that, in the film's telling, Harding brought with her to every event. One of the year's top five performances? Maybe not, but it's outstanding work anyway, and gets me more excited to see where Robbie's career heads than anything else she's ever done - there's something of the rowdy acting styles of the 1970s in her work here that I'm desperate to see more of.

Also very good: Sebastian Stan, who finds a pathetic register that makes him feel like one of the sad sack losers in a Coen brothers film. If Robbie is serving up a reminder that she can be really good, Stan is somehow even more impressive; the smoldering nobody of the Marvel movies had this kind of tightly-wound comic performance, a mealy-mouthed geek who can convincingly turn violent in the span of a few frames? That's absolutely startling, and while I, Tonya does live and die based on Robbie's performance, it's nice to have someone like Stan hovering in the supporting roles.

I think, all told, I'm slightly in love with the movie, though part of that might just be that it rocketed past my very low expectations; it's a smart, acerbic movie, not a genius work of pitch-black satire, like I keep wanting to call it in my heart. Still, even the milder version of what I, Tonya does well is still damn impressive. Oscarbait it might be, but terribly enjoyable Oscarbait, and if more cradle-to-grave (or cradle-to-middle-aged-obsolescence, anyway) biopics had this much wit, flashy style, and punchy acting, I should imagine that I'd be hard pressed to keep up my well-honed antipathy toward the genre.