Why are so many coming-of-age films shot in Pittsburgh? | Pittsburgh City Paper

Why are so many coming-of-age films shot in Pittsburgh?

click to enlarge A girl with red hair smiles as she holds a child wearing a hat with bunny ears.
Photo: Zin Haze Productions
Dear Zoe

What do The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl all have in common? They’re all coming-of-age movies, a term given to stories about a young person’s journey growing up and figuring themselves out. They were also all shot in Pittsburgh.

Add Dear Zoe to that list. Directed by Gren Wells and starring Stranger Things actor Sadie Sink, the film was adapted from a novel by Pittsburgh native Philip Beard and was shot entirely in locations such as Braddock, Squirrel Hill, the Strip District, Downtown, and Kennywood.

Local film fans will get to see Dear Zoe on the big screen when it has its world premiere
 on Wed., Nov. 2 at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. Another special screening will follow on Thu., Nov. 3 at the Oaks Theater in Oakmont.

Starting Fri., Nov. 4, the film will screen at the Manor Theatre, Waterworks Cinemas, Cranberry Cinemas, and Century Square Luxury Cinemas.

When filmmakers are deciding on where to shoot their next production, they often look for locations that can convey specifics — wintry 1980s city life or sultry summer fun in the present day. Few places can boast to do both as well as Pittsburgh. Dawn Keezer, director at the Pittsburgh Film Office, an organization that coordinates incoming or local film projects, says filmmakers are drawn to the city’s 90 distinct neighborhoods.

“It’s attractive from a location standpoint — you know, the topography is so interesting — and we have such a great mix of architectural styles that we really can play for anywhere,” Keezer says. “It makes it easier for people to picture their story here because we have so much that will already match what is in their script.”

Need a modern, metropolitan scene? Head to PPG Place, where the flanking neo-Gothic high-rises serve as the setting for a scene from the 1999 family film Inspector Gadget. Can’t get New Jersey but need something similar? Director Cooper Raiff masqueraded the tree-lined streets of Upper St. Claire and Mt. Lebanon as the Garden State for his 2022 dramedy Cha Cha Real Smooth. The Fault in Our Stars, another coming-of-age narrative, imagined the same area as Indianapolis.

When it comes to stories about young people, Keezer points out that the city’s down-to-earth atmosphere invites tender, personal family tales.

“People feel Iike home when they’re here,” Keezer says. “I don’t mean to sound all hokey, but we’ve got that great midwestern appeal — we’re all real people. We have all the stuff that they don’t have in California.”

Pittsburgh’s steel-town roots also appear in these coming-of-age movies, some of which find their characters emerging from rough-and-tumble origins. In the Netflix show, I Am Not Okay With This, Sydney Novak (Sophia Lillis) discovers her telekinetic powers against the Rust Belt landscape of Brownsville, where it was filmed.

click to enlarge A man and two teen boys, one Black, one white, stand on a porch eating some kind of unidentified meat.
Photo: Searchlight Pictures
Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl

Minette Seate, the host of WQED’s weekly program Filmmaker’s Corner, says audiences and screenwriters alike are attracted to stories set in industrial locales.

“People love to have that establishment in a gritty, working-class town,” Seate says. “‘They grew up and became something special, but they still have a tie to the real them, which is rooted in these real people in this real working-class environment. I think that is very romantic for a screenwriter or filmmaker to have that for a story.”

In Dear Zoe, the locations changes with the character. The film centers around 15-year-old Tess DeNunzio (Sink), whose suburban life with her mother and stepdad has become strained after her younger sister was killed in a hit-and-run accident. She decides to move in with her biological father (Theo Rossi), a slacker who lives on the “other side of the tracks.” Tess’ relocation in the movie is reflected by the change of setting from the suburbs of Squirrel Hill to Braddock.

“For this story of a girl going through loss and conflict and trying to figure out who she is, it was the perfect backdrop for her to go from the affluent suburbs to a working-class neighborhood, using all these different locations and all the people she met along the way,” Seate says.

Another constant between films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Dear Zoe? They have Pittsburgh roots, with both films being adapted from novels by local authors.

There are countless studio production lots in Hollywood, but what says home better than where you grew up?

“Everybody wants to come home. And having these projects gives them the opportunity to do it,” Keezer says. “Look what raised me, and now I’m coming back and I’m able to do this."

Dear Zoe World Premiere. 5 p.m. Wed., Nov. 2. August Wilson African American Cultural Center. 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $98. culturaldistrict.org

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