Margot Robbie gives a career-defining performance playing Tonya Harding in her new movie

In a year where a lot of the hyped titles playing at the Toronto International Film Festival have already premiered at Telluride or Venice, “I, Tonya” is one title TIFF can claim as its own.

The dark, twisted, and hilarious look at the rise and fall of US Olympic figure-skater Tonya Harding had its world premiere at the fest on Friday, and with no distribution in place, the movie has buyers scrambling to nab it.

Margot Robbie plays the disgraced skater in a performance that is the best of her career to this point.

Though Harding’s claim to fame should be as the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, what she’s really known for is being the center of one of the biggest scandals in US sports history when her rival, US figure-skater Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics. Later on, it was discovered that Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, hired someone to assault Kerrigan.

But “I, Tonya,” directed by Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl,” “The Finest Hours”), doesn’t only focus on the scandal that became a pop-culture obsession in the mid-1990s. To tell the story right, you have to delve deeper into Harding’s life and that’s just what Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers did.

Pushed to be a figure-skater by her mother (played by Allison Janney) at 3, Harding knew two things growing up, skating on the ice and being abused.

There’s a lot to laugh about and get nostalgic over in “I, Tonya,” but at its core it’s a story about a woman who has been mentally and physically abused by everyone who has ever been in her life.

By 15, Harding moves from the slaps and shoves of her mother to go live with Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and things don’t get better. He beats her constantly, which doesn’t stop Harding from marrying the guy.

Through all of this, Harding rises through the ranks of US figure-skating, and because of her ability to land the triple axel, becomes an elite skater. Which is even more remarkable in a sport like figure skating — where privilege and a wholesome image is a necessity — Harding did it all dirt poor and never making nice with anyone.

Margot Robbie Maarten de Boer GettyMaarten de Boer/GettyMargot Robbie.

Robbie (who is also a producer on the movie) captures the rough Harding persona and delivers a performance which is at times heart-achingly real and at others masterfully comedic. From her hair to her loud outfits, Robbie is everything that made you love Harding if you lived through the time when she was one of the most recognisable people on the planet.

And then there’s the supporting cast that only makes Robbie and the movie better. Stan as the mustached Gillooly is the perfect villain. And Paul Walter Hauser, who plays Gillooly’s friend and Harding’s “bodyguard” Shawn Eckhardt, is a hilarious scene stealer. But it’s Janney as Harding’s unforgiving mother that’s the most remarkable. She plays her ruthless and never gives the character the slightest hint of compassion towards Harding.

The movie has top notch make-up and costume design as it goes through the decades of Harding’s life and jumps forward to present day with the characters giving interviews looking back on the events. This style gives the movie one of its most memorable moments, when present day Harding looks into the camera and describes the pain she feels being the punching bag of the media and public. They being her latest abuser. And how this movie, and we the audience enjoying her messed up life, are now her current abuser.

If there’s one knock on the movie, the poor CGI for the skating scenes makes it obvious Robbie isn’t doing most of the skating. But, no one was expecting her to learn the triple axel for the role.

With “I, Tonya” having no distribution at the time of this writing, it’s hard to forecast what’s in store for it. But outside of box office, which should be solid seeing the amount of people still fascinated by Harding and the scandal, this movie certainly has the potential of being an awards season player this year.

I certainly hope that happens.

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