The United States of Film: Pennsylvania

Take the long drive from one end of the Keystone State to the other with the best of Pennsylvania's eclectic cinema.

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The United States of Film: Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is a massive state. I know, because as a child I would spend multiple days in the car every summer, trekking with my parents from Illinois to their hometowns in Pennsylvania’s northeastern corner—the Wyoming Valley, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, the Coal Region, the hellhole, whatever you want to call it—the drive from one end of Pennsylvania to the other always seeming unbelievably long. This is partly because of ubiquitous road construction, and partly because the whole state felt eclectic to me, a sense that persisted once I grew up and settled in Pittsburgh. But despite the many regional differences spanning the Keystone State, there’s an intangible essence of Pennsylvania-ness that exists throughout, an essence also captured in the best of Pennsylvanian film.

Pennsylvania-ness is inextricable from American industry—coal and steel, smokestacks and mine shafts, boom and bust and recession and depression—which transformed Pennsylvania in many ways, perhaps most significantly by attracting millions of immigrants (largely from Eastern and Southern Europe) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These immigrant communities are widely recognizable in Pennsylvania today, with some areas still unofficially segregated by ethnicity.

Pennsylvania is also a major swing state, a complicated region for politicians to navigate—a microcosm, of sorts, of America in the past half-decade. Take the political, cultural and economic divide between the state’s urban centers—cosmopolitan Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (once the rustiest of the rust belt, now flush with tech money and rapidly gentrifying)—and its impoverished rural areas. See also the state’s still-profound grief (happily exploited by the Trump campaign) over the decline of blue-collar jobs, one that began with the devastating 1982 steel crash and continues to this day.

Then observe the diversity of Pennsylvania’s people and the sense of pride within those immigrant communities which, generations later, still remain close-knit and culturally vital. Born out of these factors is an essential aspect of Pennsylvania-ness: a hard-won sense of belonging, of a group of people who dug in their heels and stuck it out, with good humor, while things around them fell apart.

While this feeling of rooted-ness is central to the spirit of Pennsylvania, it also serves to exacerbate divisions among its people. In the Pennsylvanian films on this list, the impact of industry looms, as does this sense of division—between urban and rural, between working class and ruling class, between insular communities living side-by-side. Yes, Pennsylvania is a massive state, with so many people and so much difference churning within it. So many stories to tell. And so, it’s from a plethora of options that I’ve culled a list of 20 Pennsylvania-based films that, taken as a whole, just might shed some light on this tough, dirty, beautiful state. Grab a cheesesteak, some pierogies and a frosty Yuengling—gather ’round, yinz and youse.

(And for more in our growing United States of Film series, check here.)


20. Signs
Year: 2002
Director: M. Night Shyamalan

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M. Night Shyamalan is one of Pennsylvania’s most loyal filmmakers, having shot every single one of his films at least partially in the state. And while not all of them feel particularly connected to place, 2002’s Signs exudes Pennsylvania-ness. The film opens on a lonely farm in Bucks County, PA (actually Doylestown, just north of Philadelphia), where former Episcopalian priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lives with his children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin), his baseball-star-turned-gas-station-attendant brother (Joaquin Phoenix), and the shadow of his deceased wife, whose death in an accident months earlier prompted Graham’s crisis of faith. Strange things begin occurring on the farm: complex crop circles, footsteps on the roof, aggression from the family dogs. Soon, the family is in the middle of a full-blown, global alien invasion. Bucks County is a place where everyone knows each other, and business owners speak disdainfully of “city people,” but this is not the kind of story where a small town bands together. It’s far from a warm community, and in fact it feels empty, judgmental and ever so slightly off in that uncanny Twilight Zone-esque way. And like The Twilight Zone before it, Signs finds its horror not in the aliens themselves (who, as many complained at the time of the films’ release, are pretty lame) but in the deep, unmooring sorrow that’s swallowing this family whole—an enemy not so easily defeated.


19. Blue Valentine
Year: 2010
Director: Derek Cianfrance

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Blue Valentine is in some ways the anti-date movie: It follows a young couple, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), who meet, fall in love, hastily get married and then realize they don’t know each other at all, adopting a routine of silent, seething resentment that builds into a desperate bitterness. But it is still a love story, a heartbreaking and beautiful one, captured in career-best performances from Williams and Gosling and clever cinematography from Andrij Parekh, who shot the couple’s early relationship in Super 16mm, and their crumbling marriage in harsh digital. The setting of Honesdale, PA (just outside of Scranton) was chosen arbitrarily (Williams wanted to stay close to her Brooklyn home), but it fits the mood of the film perfectly. Honesdale represents rural coal country in an era of decline—it’s a place of quaint charm but limited opportunity. Stuck in a tiny house with bickering parents, Cindy sees an escape in Dean, a worldly and self-sufficient Brooklynite. But when Cindy becomes pregnant, the two repeat her parents’ bitter cycle and, both disappointed over dashed dreams, lash out with a jealousy and anger that destroys their fragile union. In light of the characters’ experiences, the setting appears charming in one scene (a blissful rendezvous outside a dress shop, where Gosling plays the ukulele) and bleak in another (a disastrous “date” in a tacky honeymoon suite).


18. Silver Linings Playbook
Year: 2012
Director: David O. Russell

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As a romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook is a bit of a mess, but it deserves acclaim for its spot-on depiction of suburban Philadelphia. Shot in the historic suburbs of Upper Darby and Ridley Park, the film follows Pat (Bradley Cooper), fresh from a stint in a mental health facility and grappling with bipolar disorder while crashing with his Italian-American parents Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Patrizio (Robert De Niro), an illegal bookmaker who gambles compulsively on—what else—the embattled Philadelphia Eagles. These larger-than-life characters are grounded by humble details, like their ’70s-style living room and their crabby snacks and homemades. While Silver Linings Playbook’s central focus is on Pat’s burgeoning relationship with young widow Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), its most potent element is its depiction of a dysfunctional family, particularly the relationship between a father and son both struggling with psychological issues. Pats Sr. and Jr. manipulate and infuriate each other, all the while relying on sports and superstition as a conduit. In fact, the film’s best scenes revolve around the Eagles: Pat and his brother brawl with Giants fans, faces and chests painted; Tiffany rattles off Eagles stats to prove to Patrizio that she’s “good juju.” Russell’s cacophonous directorial style can sometimes lapse too readily into chaos, but he finds a sweet spot with Silver Linings Playbook, a film about trying to sort out the tangled mess of family and mental illness until ultimately giving up, settling into a chair, and saying, “Fuck it, let’s watch football.”


17. All the Right Moves
Year: 1983
Director: Michael Chapman

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All the Right Moves depicts Pennsylvania steel country in “desperate 1983,” described in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as “a region hanging on by its fingernails.” Set in the fictional steel town of Ampipe and filmed in the real steel town of Johnstown (near Pittsburgh), the film stars a young Tom Cruise as Stefan “Stef” Djordjevic (described as “Serbian-American,” though this detail does not factor into the plot), a working-class kid who hopes that football will save him from the typical Ampipe life: working all day at the mill and drinking all night at the bar. All the Right Moves is almost elegiac, a film like a Bruce Springsteen song, as Stef’s buddies face down the end of high school, and with it, the crushing end of their glory days. Even the football scenes feel more like work than play, the team practicing under gray skies (and the hawk-like gaze of the coach played by Craig T. Nelson), in pouring rain and mud, with smokestacks in the distance belching out white pollution. Though the film’s ending is a bit too pat and happy for Stef himself, All the Right Moves is an authentic-seeming portrayal of life in western PA during the height of the region’s devastating economic recession, a fact that makes it still worth watching decades later.


16. The Valley of Decision
Year: 1945
Director: Tay Garnett

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Another Steel City story, The Valley of Decision takes place in Pittsburgh in a more prosperous time (the late 19th century), when industry was rapidly growing, making mill owners richer and putting workers at greater risk of exploitation. In the film, Gregory Peck is Paul Scott, the wealthy son of a mill owner who falls in love with his father’s maid, Mary (Greer Garson, in an Oscar-nominated performance), an Irish immigrant. The lovers are star-crossed, however, not just because of their awkward master/servant relationship, but also because Mary’s father (Lionel Barrymore, at his most belligerent) has held a grudge against the Scott family ever since a serious mill accident left him confined to a wheelchair. Mary and Paul’s romance slowly blossoms against the ever-chaotic backdrop of the mill, where tensions between striking workers and the Scott family come to a head. The Valley of Decision captures the early days of the steel industry in Pennsylvania, and the complex relationships forged between immigrant workers and mill owners who were often immigrants themselves forced to navigate old grudges and friendships in the face of newfound wealth. It’s a lot to take on, and the film staggers a bit under its weight, but manages to make an impact. “Steel’s as much a part of us as the blood in our veins,” Paul declares, summing up a sentiment that simmered throughout Western Pennsylvania for over a century and, to some extent, still does.


15. Bob Roberts
Year: 1992
Director: Tim Robbins 

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Watching Tim Robbins’ satirical 1992 mockumentary Bob Roberts in 2017 is a grim experience—not only because parts of the film feel startlingly prescient, but also because when Robbins thought he was taking things to absurd extremes, it turns out he was only scratching the surface. Robbins stars as the titular Roberts, a conservative candidate for Pennsylvania senate who wins over the electorate with his tendency to “shoot from the hip” and his ridiculous folk songs about family values, drug addicts and the evils of welfare. Of course, the straight-shooting image Roberts presents is a façade, one that conceals illegal and immoral dealings. Only one reporter (Giancarlo Esposito) has the guts to try and take him down—at his own peril. It’s an utterly cynical film, but Robbins’ critique of American politics as an inescapable cycle of corruption is still sharp and on point. This story is right at home in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where some of the most contentious political battles (like 2016’s Senate race) have been waged. What might have felt too dark in the 1990s manages to hit pretty hard in 2017, though it may now bring you closer to tears than laughter.


14. Adventureland
Year: 2009
Director: Greg Mottola

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It can’t all be steel mill layoffs and dark political plots: Adventureland, one of the more lighthearted films on this list, is a pitch-perfect coming-of-age story. In the summer of 1987, twenty-somethings James (Jesse Eisenberg), Em (Kristen Stewart) and Joel (Martin Starr, who steals the movie) find each other in the purgatory of the Adventureland Amusement Park (actually Pittsburgh’s historic Kennywood), passing their days operating rides and un-winnable games when they’d rather be anywhere else. Writer-director Mottola’s success lies in his resistance to romanticizing his characters—Eisenberg’s James, in particular, is just as annoying and self-absorbed as a real 22-year-old Oberlin grad, and gets called on it. Likewise, the Pittsburgh of Adventureland is real, an insider’s city, not a city of landmarks. The film explores the day-to-day Pittsburgh of neighborhoods, of patchy, unruly yards, of dive bars, of wood-paneled basements in old brick houses teetering on strenuous hills. To these characters, it’s also a dead-end town from which escape is the best option, lest they wind up like Ryan Reynolds’ maintenance man Connell, committing adultery in his mother’s basement and bragging endlessly about meeting Lou Reed. “Your life must be utter shit, or you wouldn’t be here,” Joel observes to James at the beginning of the film. But Adventureland’s fondness for its city and its flawed characters shines through such self-deprecation.


13. Flashdance
Year: 1983
Director: Adrian Lyne

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Flashdance is by far the most popular film to celebrate the Steel City, a trendsetting hit in 1983 that’s still worth appreciating for its amusingly dated mix of music video, underdog story and romantic drama. Flashdance also pulls off the impressive feat of being both blatantly sexist (its leering, chopped-up body shots are obvious Laura Mulvey material) and feminist: Sure, the camera spends a good portion of the movie zoomed in on Alex’s (Jennifer Beals) gyrating hips, but it also captures her at her day job as a welder at the steel mill, certainly a rare occupation for an 18-year-old girl in 1983. As in so many of the films on this list, the Pittsburgh of Flashdance is one of faded glory: Its characters live in industrial spaces (like Alex’s proto-Bushwick apartment) and tiny townhouses, dance in seedy bars and encounter sleazy characters on its dimly lit streets. Similarly to The Valley of Decision, Flashdance revolves around the fundamentally unequal relationship between Alex and the wealthy owner of the mill that employs her, but Flashdance ultimately cares more about jazzercise than labor relations. The film skews into cliché a few too many times, but finds a gritty charm on the margins of its central story by shedding light on the roughest corners of the city and bringing its people to life.


12. Wonder Boys
Year: 2000
Director: Curtis Hanson

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When I read Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys a few years after seeing the movie, I was immediately struck by how deftly the adaptation (by Steve Kloves, who also adapted the Harry Potter series) captured the story and also the feel of the novel. In turn, the novel and the film both nail the specific culture of academia in Pittsburgh, a city that’s not-quite-east coast, not-quite-Philadelphia, and attracts an interesting mix of pretentious city snobs and salt-of-the-earth rust belt-ers —two categories straddled by Grady Tripp, played by Michael Douglas in one of the best (albeit completely ignored) performances of his career. Tripp is a perpetually stoned English professor and author who rattles around a messy, old house (shot appropriately in Friendship, a popular university neighborhood) working on a follow-up to his one famous novel, published long ago. Wonder Boys follows Tripp and a great cast, including pre-Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr., pre-Spider-Man Tobey Maguire and Frances McDormand, through a madcap Pittsburgh weekend involving a dead dog, a stolen car, a break-in and a lost manuscript. It doesn’t attempt to find visual beauty in the Golden Triangle (teeming rain and freezing cold often greet Grady as he stumbles out the door in his bathrobe), but rather something more existential in its spontaneity and at times frustrating connectedness: It’s smaller, and more complicated, than it seems.


11. The Molly Maguires
Year: 1970
Director: Martin Ritt

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Released to poor box office numbers in 1970, this film about Pennsylvania coal miners remains unknown to many aside from coal country-bred Irish-Americans like my parents, who insisted I include it on this list. But The Molly Maguires is well worth seeing, as it tells an essential Pennsylvania story. Set in 1876, the film is based on the true story of a group of Irish immigrant miners belonging to the “Molly Maguires,” a secret organization (originally formed in Ireland around land usage disputes) who targeted oppressive mine owners by planting dynamite in mines and destroying equipment. Sean Connery stars as Maguires leader Jack Kehoe, with Richard Harris playing James McParlan, a Pinkerton detective hired to infiltrate and undermine the group. The film revolves around these two men on opposite sides, who take vastly different approaches to the same personal goals. The Molly Maguires’ biggest selling point is its realistic depiction of life in an Irish-American coal community, with its miners’ shacks, bare-bones pub and black, coal-dusted hills. Luckily, Ritt was able to shoot in Eckley, PA, a coal town that at the time of filming remained virtually unchanged from the late 19th century (it is now a museum). The Molly Maguires is a small-scale film that manages to speak volumes about Pennsylvania in the 1870s—a rising industrial capital built on the backs of immigrant workers who were already beginning to organize and fight for their rights.

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