“Dear Zoe,” the ultimate little Pittsburgh movie that could, finally had its moment in the sun Wednesday night during its Steel City premiere at Downtown’s August Wilson African American Cultural Center.
A red carpet was rolled out as local luminaries joined those involved with the film’s production to celebrate the imminent release of “Dear Zoe,” the big-screen adaptation of Pittsburgh native Philip Beard’s 2005 novel that was shot throughout Western Pennsylvania in 2019. Those who couldn’t make it to Wednesday night’s star-studded event need not fret, as “Dear Zoe” will be available on VOD and in select local theaters starting Friday.
The film stars Sadie Sink as Tess DeNunzio, a high schooler struggling to cope with the recent death of her little sister, Zoe. Sink was on hand Wednesday night at the August Wilson Center to discuss this tiny movie she made years before breaking out as Max Mayfield on “Stranger Things” and generating early awards-season buzz for her performance in Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming drama “The Whale.”
“It’s very Pittsburgh,” Sink told the Union Progress on the red carpet. “I think the film really painted Pittsburgh in a really beautiful light, and I had a lot of fun here. So it’s cool to be back, even for a short amount of time.”
Whether she’s being tortured by a sadistic psychic or trying to move forward after a life-changing tragedy, Sink has already proven at only 20 years old that she can handle just about any kind of acting challenge that comes her way. She had never worked on anything “this emotionally heavy” before “Dear Zoe,” which she credited as the role that “really prepared me for some of the later projects that I’ve done since then.”
That’s not to say there was no time for revelry while making “Dear Zoe” in Pittsburgh. The film closes on an end-credits montage of Tess and her extended family enjoying themselves outside of (what was then known as ) Heinz Field during a Steelers game.
“That was really fun,” Sink said. “Pittsburgh Steelers fans are a different breed, for sure.”
Also on hand Wednesday night was Beard, who had already seen the film adaptation of his work earlier this year at the Sedona International Film Festival. It took 14 years from the time producers Marc and Brenda Lhormer first bought the film rights to “Dear Zoe” for it to finally begin screening publicly, and he still can’t quite believe they were able to shoot it all in his hometown.
“I give a lot of credit to the producers for sticking to their guns to have it filmed entirely in Pittsburgh,” Beard said. “There was a lot of pressure over the years to film it elsewhere where they could get tax credits and all that. They just said, ‘No, we want to do it here.’”
Beard was delighted by the decision to set a large part of the film in Braddock, especially after they stumbled across a house with a “spectacular” view of steel mills in the background. Braddock also isn’t too far from Kennywood Park, where another significant chunk of “Dear Zoe” takes place. Production on the film began at Kennywood so they could capture all the footage they needed there before the weather turned, Beard said.
“It was the first time I saw all the equipment, people, food service, actors all in this place I had been going to my entire life,” he recalled. “It was surreal.”
Most of the film’s Kennywood scenes involved Sink’s Tess bonding with her love interest Jimmy, played by Kweku Collins. The Evanston, Ill., native said he spent a lot of his free time in Pittsburgh skating around Downtown, exploring Butler Street, and checking out the old stomping grounds of rappers Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller.
That Kennywood filming, though, was vaguely “traumatizing” for Collins, especially a scene he and Sink shot on the Skycoaster that he described as “one of the scariest things I’ve ever done for fun.” He still was able to appreciate Kennywood’s “county fair kind of vibe” and the opportunity to work opposite a scene partner such as Sink.
So, how did those two form the kind of off-screen chemistry that shined through once the cameras started rolling?
“We played a lot of Uno,” Collins said. “She put the whoppin’ on me a lot. She’s just so cool, funny, easygoing, professional. She’s a hard worker. It was really motivating and inspiring to share the screen and just time with Sadie. I learned a lot from her.”
Pittsburgh native Sophie Guest, who plays Tess’ friend Caitlin in “Dear Zoe,” said she had a lot of fun on set recommending things to do around Pittsburgh to out-of-towners. The August Wilson Center screening was just the cherry on top.
“I got to tell all my friends at school today that that I’m going to a premiere later!” Guest said. “It’s very cool, and I’m excited to be here.”
So were the Lhormers, who first read the book in 2008 and opted to delay the film’s release by a year due to a COVID-19 surge.
“It was such a long time coming,” Brenda Lhormer said. “We needed to wait until we got to Pittsburgh so we could show it in Pittsburgh to Pittsburgh.”
The fact Sink made a point to be in Pittsburgh for the premiere of a movie she made three years ago was proof enough of how much she believed in “Dear Zoe.” It’s yet another example of how she’s already gotten to live out most of her acting dreams at such a young age.
“I feel really, really grateful,” Sink said. “I love the work that I’m doing, first and foremost. It’s so fulfilling, and that’s all that matters.”