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The Pursuit of Happyness

The Contenders

Release: Dec. 15

Distributor: Sony

Oscar Alums: Hughes Winborne (editing, “Crash”), Willie D. Burton (sound, “Bird”), Steve Tisch (picture, “Forrest Gump”)

“The Pursuit of Happyness” is the true story of Chris Gardner, a hard-scrabbling salesman who, along with his young son, survives poverty in the early 1980s and eventually lands a job at a San Francisco financial firm.

As much as “Pursuit” is about a man beating great odds to win, a la “Rocky,” it’s also very much a film about poverty in America — a subject that’s all the more resonant given recent events.

The devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans lifted the skirt on U.S. poverty. Given the ongoing perils of the poor and the middle class in this nation, “Pursuit” comes at an apt time.

These themes could well play into the Acad’s penchant for recognizing films with a social message. And given how rarely the everyday struggles of working people and the lower-middle class are touched upon in major studio films, it’s one of the few opportunities for kudos voters to shine a spotlight on it.

Will Smith, Oscar nominated for “Ali” in 2002, toplines as Gardner. Smith’s own son, Jaden, plays Gardner Jr. The pic’s father-son aspect is made all the more poignant because of the real-life pairing here.

Smith funnels his movie star persona into a humble and touching performance, and his popularity within the biz could work to his advantage in scoring an actor nomination — and perhaps even a win — this year.

Italian helmer Gabriele Muccino, working on his first English-language pic, could get recognition for his steady hand and for never veering into melodrama.

Gardner’s life story, brought to the attention of producer Mark Clayman through a “20/20” segment that aired in 2003, was scripted by Steve Conrad. Gardner published his own bio under the same title as the film earlier this year, yet “Pursuit” will campaign for an original screenplay slot. A script that could have run into treacle up and down every San Francisco hill deftly avoids false notes — it is earnest, even harsh, in all the right places.

Last year’s Oscar-winning editor Hughes Winborne (“Crash”) could again be nommed for his deft work on “Pursuit.”

Subtle ’80s period touches overseen by production designer J. Michael Riva and costume designer Sharen Davis could be noted by kudos voters as well.

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