Pittsburgh-made film 'Dear Zoe' a truly 'moving' picture, producer says

PITTSBURGH - A lovely though brief shot of Ambridge pops up in "Dear Zoe," a new film starring Sadie Sink (Max from Netflix's "Stranger Things.") Drone camerawork provides a sweeping aerial view from Old Economy Village clear to the Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge.

Seems you can't make a TV show or film these days without at least one Ambridge scene, right?

Though it's primarily Braddock, Kennywood Park, and Pittsburgh's Strip District, North Shore and Squirrel Hill/Shadyside neighborhoods garnering screen time in "Dear Zoe," which appropriately enough makes its red carpet debut in Pittsburgh on Nov. 2.

"There were two different sets of producers and financiers who tried to get me to agree to film in either Providence, RI, or Youngstown, Ohio, but I was committed to filming in my hometown," said Marc Lhormer, producer and screenwriter for the powerful coming-of-age story of love, loss, grief and resilience.

In a backyard barbecue scene, Lhormer found a way to pay homage to Busy Beaver Building Centers, the local company his dad started in Clairton in 1962.

His dad had suggested the film's gritty Braddock location, where protagonist Tess (Sink) decides to spend a summer with her Pittsburgh sports-obsessed father ("Sons of Anarchy's" Theo Rossi), largely to escape her emotionally distant mother Elly ("Grey's Anatomy's" Jessica Capshaw) and stepfather David (Justin Bartha), who are grieving the unimaginable loss of Tess’s little sister, Zoe (Mckenzie Noel Rusiewicz).

Coming from a picturesque neighborhood, the soon-to-turn-17 Tess quickly acclimates to hardscrabble Braddock, thanks to cute and kind next-door-neighbor Jimmy (Kweku Collins in his film debut) who sometimes runs with a dangerous crowd. The new surroundings and alliances allow Tess a chance to process her own blame and grief.

Lhormer said Collins and Sink enjoyed romping around Kennywood during filming, even riding the amusement park's towering SkyCoaster seven times in a row for one scene.

More:Ambridge, Aliquippa scenery seen in 'League of Their Own' trailer

More:Tady: Tom Hanks film sets Ambridge filming date; Ellwood City to rock

Sink, 20, was a great "get" for "Dear Zoe," riding a big wave of momentum after her pivotal role in the past few "Stranger Things" seasons. Her character single-handedly made Kate Bush's 1985 song "Running Up That Hill" relevant again.

In a phone interview a few weeks ago, Lhormer admitted he had not watched "Stranger Things," or been familiar with Sink when she was among the 30 actresses, ages 16-21, given in-person auditions from hundreds of video applicants.

It was the way Sink read her lines that led her to ace the audition.

"I remember thinking 'Oh my God, I am listening to the voice I've had in my head all this time,'" Lhormer said. "And she had a great look. Some of the actresses who came in looked more like models; some over-acted. But Sadie just felt so real."

That voice for lead character Tess had rattled around Lhormer's brain for more than a decade, since he and his wife, Brenda, acquired the rights to the film from Pittsburgh author Philip Beard, whose novel initially had set the story in Pittsburgh.

"Philip wanted his book turned into a movie," Lhormer said.. "He saw our first feature production, 'Bottle Shock,' at the Waterworks Cinemas in 2008, and was then introduced to me through my childhood acquaintance Carl Kurlander," the Shadyside native who wrote the 1985 hit "St. Elmo's Fire.'"

Beard trusted the Lhormers would succeed just as they did with "Bottle Shock," a wine-industry comedy-drama starring Chris Pine and Alan Rickman. The Lhormers were captivated by Beard's book and its depiction of grieving, redemption and reinvention.

So a moviemaking deal was made.

Though the Lhormers, dwelling in California wine country, found it hard to break free from their duties as co-founders of the Napa Valley Film Festival, so they needed to put "Dear Zoe" on the back burner.

Filmed at McDonald's:Netflix movie films at Beaver County McDonald's

Finally able to film in 2019, they hired Gren Wells (2014's "The Road Within") to direct. Filming took place in Allegheny County before the COVID pandemic arrived and wreaked havoc on the movie industry.

Waiting until moviegoers were ready to return to theaters, the Lhormers planned a late summer 2021 premiere, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the story's setting. But then COVID's Delta variant emerged, discouraging moviegoers again.

"So we sat on in for a while," Lhormer said.

Their movie fared well at a few controlled test screenings at film festivals.

"'Dear Zoe' has been winning a slew of awards: Best Acting Ensemble, Best Actress, Audience Favorite, Indie Gem, Best Humanitarian Feature Film," Lhormer said. "Audience members are deeply touched and inspired. Many have shared their own stories of love and loss; moments when they have needed support, and times when they have been there to support someone else. There have been many group hugs."

The firm release date this November coincides with Children's Grief Awareness Month.

"That is a lovely tie-in we thought," Lhormer said.

The film's Red Carpet premiere, with cast members and a Q&A, takes place Nov. 2, at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, in Pittsburgh. Tickets are $95 at awc.culturaldistrict.org with a share of net proceeds going to Pittsburgh’s The Caring Place, a nonprofit organization that supports grieving children and their families.

Rated R, mainly for some teenage marijuana use, Lhormer said, "'Dear Zoe' should be and is a healing experience. Something to get people talking about the important stuff. 'Dear Zoe' is the epitome of what is meant by a “moving” picture.

"The story is a full emotional workout. You laugh, you cry, you smile knowingly. For teens and young adults, the story and lead characters are more immediately present. For older audiences, with more lived experience, there’s a deep feeling of nostalgia: hanging out with friends, fighting with parents, running away ― or threatening to do so ― falling in love for the first time, getting a summer job at the amusement park or ice cream shop," Lhormer said.

"So much of the story reminds me of the essential character of Pittsburgh as a place and as a community; taking the body blows, getting knocked down… but getting back up, living to fight another day, and indeed reinventing itself to be better than before."

More:What's Cooking: News from the Beaver Valley dining & drinks scenes

More:My Favorite Guitar: Local guitar aces discuss their No. 1 instrument

See 'Dear Zoe'

On Nov. 4, "Dear Zoe" debuts at the Cranberry Cinemas, Cranberry Township; Century Square Luxury Cinemas, West Mifflin; Manor Theatre, Squirrel Hill; and Waterworks Cinemas, Aspinwall.

"Only one-week bookings initially," Lhomer said. "Theater owners decide whether to extend a film's run based on the strength of the turnout for the opening Friday and Saturday."

So he encourages everyone to go see "Dear Zoe" those opening two nights.

"Dear Zoe" also will screen in select theaters in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle. The filmmakers will partner with the National Alliance for Children's Grief to spread the word.

"Most people, of course, will experience 'Dear Zoe' in their homes by renting or buying from video on demand (VOD) platforms," Brenda Lhormer said. "We really want audiences to rent or buy from iTunes/Apple TV or Amazon. Those are the best platforms. However, we’ll be on almost every VOD platform there is, all starting Nov. 4."

Scott Tady is entertainment editor at The Times and easy to reach at stady@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Pittsburgh-made Dear Zoe' to debut; stars 'Stranger Things' actress