12/20/2010 10:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

David O. Russell Battles for The Fighter

David O. Russell is on the phone, eager to talk about The Fighter, a movie whose unexpected dash to the top is not all that dissimilar from the story it tells.

Which means that Russell and his cast -- Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo -- find themselves thrust into the year-end awards race. Dark horses in November, the film and Russell - along with Adams, Bale and Leo -- suddenly are considered Oscar contenders, having won critics' awards and multiple nominations for the Golden Globes.

"The fact that people are connecting to it is what means the most to us," Russell, 52, says.

Set in the early 1990s in the depressed town of Lowell, Mass., The Fighter tells the true story of a pair of brothers: "Irish" Micky Ward (Wahlberg), a boxer with potential but only a so-so record, and Dicky Eklund (Bale), his brother, a former boxer who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard and who now serves as Micky's trainer. But Dicky and Micky's mother, Alice (Leo), have fumbled Micky's career management -- and the fact that Dicky is a crack addict, something no one in the family wants to address, isn't helping.

In real life, Eklund was the subject of an HBO documentary on the dire effects of the crack epidemic of the early 1990s, a fact that brought shame to the town of Lowell. It's an element of Russell's film as well, in which Bale's hot-wired Dicky believes the film crew is making a movie about his comeback.

"Dicky was the most famous thing about Lowell for a long time," Russell says. "The town was known for Bette Davis, Ed McMahon, Jack Kerouac -- and then Dicky. The town had a scar from that HBO film. Now it's got 'The Fighter.'

"The family was the pride of Lowell until the HBO thing. Then people said, 'You're killing us.' Now we're able to follow the story in a fuller circle."

When Russell took over The Fighter, he reworked the script. While the story had certain elements of the boxing genre, Russell knew he could move beyond clichés to find something deeper.