Parental Guidance

4 Family-Friendly Underdog Sports Movie Alternatives to I, Tonya

by | December 8, 2017 | Comments

Unless your children are unusually interested in decades-old pop culture, it’s likely they neither know nor care about Tonya Harding and the criminal Olympic fiasco that has come to define her place in sports history. That said, the Margot Robbie-powered drama I, Tonya is, according to most critics, a powerful and fascinating look at the infamous figure skater’s life, and it’s currently Certified Fresh. If you don’t get a chance to see the film in its limited release this weekend, partially because you’ve got kids to think about, then here are some other underdog sports movies you can watch with the whole family, as recommended by film critic Christy Lemire.


I, Tonya (2018) 90%

Rating: R, for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity.

I, Tonya is excellent but it’s definitely not kids – even if you have daughters who are into figure skating and think this world of sparkling artistry looks appealing. It earns its R rating early and often, with strong language throughout and scenes of domestic violence that are extremely difficult to watch. Director Craig Gillespie plays with the absurdity of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding’s downfall, but he’s matter-of-fact and poignantly sympathetic in his depiction of the abuse she endured at the hands of both her mother and husband. Margot Robbie gives a powerhouse performance as Harding, who gained infamy outside her sport for her tangential role in the 1994 leg-whacking of rival Nancy Kerrigan. We see her suffer cruel and degrading verbal attacks from her mother (Allison Janney) before entering into a physically abusive marriage to Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). There’s also ton of smoking from the very start – her mother stands on the ice with a cigarette during one of the first times we see her. Teenagers could see this, probably, but it’s not suitable for anyone much younger. Quite a bit of it is disturbing, regardless of your age.


If your kids are too young for I, Tonya but you’d like to share another underdog sports movie with them, here are a few suggestions:

Ice Castles (1978) 44%

Rating: PG, for some mild language.

I loved this movie so much when I was a little girl, and I’ll admit it still chokes me up now as an adult. Maybe that’s the power of nostalgia. Anyway, ignore the Tomatometer score, because it’s great – although, in retrospect, it does look rather dated. Lynn-Holly Johnson stars as Lexie Winston, a 16-year-old figure skater from small-town Iowa with dreams of Olympic greatness. She rises to stardom quickly and forgets her wholesome roots, only to fall just as fast and lose it all when a freak skating accident leaves her mostly blind. (Yes, I realize how corny this sounds.) There are some uncomfortable scenes of tough love as Lexie’s former coach (the great Colleen Dewhurst) urges her to stop feeling sorry for herself and return to the outside world after the accident. Lexie and her hockey player boyfriend (the dreamy Robby Benson) kiss quite a bit. There’s some smoking – it was the ‘70s, after all. And at the height of Lexie’s fame, she enters into a romantic relationship with a much older TV reporter, which is just creepy and wrong on multiple levels. But Ice Castles has all kinds of worthwhile themes about the power of perseverance and overcoming adversity.

The Karate Kid (1984) 89%

Rating: PG, for adult situations/language and violence.

Your kids already may have seen the hugely popular 2010 remake starring Jaden Smith, which made nearly $360 million worldwide. Now, it’s time to show them the original. It is the prototype for the feel-good, come-from-behind sports movie. Looking back now, I can see the wheels turning in its formulaic machinery, but I don’t care. I saw the original Karate Kid so many times when I was 12 years old, I could recite the dialogue along with the actors, and I dreamed of being Elisabeth Shue. (She did have amazing hair). But this movie is all about Ralph Macchio as a scrawny kid from New Jersey who moves to Los Angeles with his single mom and promptly gets his butt kicked by the high school bullies, led by ultimate ‘80s-movie villain William Zabka. He learns karate with the help of his unorthodox teacher, handyman Mr. Miyagi (the iconic Pat Morita), and redeems himself at The Big Competition. There’s quite a bit of violence as the mean guys beat the daylights out of Macchio’s character early in the movie. Mr. Miyagi gets drunk and sadly reminisces about the family he lost in World War II; there’s also a tiny bit of marijuana use. And Macchio and Shue kiss a little. But The Karate Kid is a classic, and a must-see for viewers around 9 or 10 and older.

The Bad News Bears (1976) 97%

Rating: PG.

This also was remade – by Richard Linklater in 2005, when the title was just Bad News Bears – but the original is hilarious and extremely of its time. Despite the PG rating, there’s quite a bit of language here from adults and kids as well as some inappropriate racial remarks. (You could use it as an opportunity to teach your children what not to say, perhaps.) We also see kids smoking and drinking beer. But the cast of characters is so colorful and distinct and their rousing road to greatness is so unlikely, it’s hard not to be charmed. The great Walter Matthau stars as the reluctant coach of a terrible Little League team. He’s a serious alcoholic struggling to lead a group of unruly, profane misfits. But the addition of a talented female pitcher (Tatum O’Neal) and a tough-guy hitter (Jackie Earle Haley) gives him hope and turns his team into a contender. Despite the grown-up nature of some of the film, The Bad News Bears has an infectious joy that will appeal to adults and kids alike. And its themes of teamwork and persistence are certainly worthwhile.

Cool Runnings (1993) 76%

Rating: PG.

It’s silly and super formulaic, but Cool Runnings is also a funny and feel-good movie the whole family can enjoy. It’s based on the true story of the Jamaican bobsled team, which was a surprising competitor in the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. When an accident keeps a track athlete (Leon) out of the summer games, he finds a winter sport to compete in instead. A disgraced former gold medalist (the late, great John Candy) becomes the team’s unlikely coach. There’s a lot of slapsticky physical humor here as the Jamaicans struggle to train for a cold-weather sport in a summery climate — and of course, the transition to the snowy setting of Canada comes as a shock. The Jamaicans are depicted with rather over-the-top, goofy personalities, as are their rivals. And there’s a barroom brawl as well as some mild language scattered throughout. But as in the other recommendations on this list, Cool Runnings has inspiring themes of teamwork, overcoming the odds and dreaming big.

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