Helmer Ben Lewin describes Sundance 2012 as “surprising.” “The Sessions,” which he wrote and directed, made a splash at the Utah fest. In addition to garnering both the dramatic audience award and the special jury prize for ensemble cast, the film was acquired by Fox Searchlight for an estimated $6 million — the largest deal at this year’s festival.

“It’s often hard to predict what strikes a funny chord in audiences,” Lewin says. “So when the entire Eccles Theater erupted in laughter that was so loud that it covered some of the (film’s dialogue), I was very surprised and really elated.”

Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy, the moving drama brings an unexpected yet welcome dose of comedy to the true story of Mark O’Brien, a paraplegic confined to an iron lung who arranges to lose his virginity.

“The (project’s) humor emanates from Mark’s world view,” says Lewin, himself a polio survivor. “He saw life as rather absurd and had very sharp humor. I decided to use that to set the tone for the movie. So it’s not added jokes or side gags that give the film its humor — that really emanates from his situation.”