Review: Dreaming Grand Avenue Features a Chicago Dreamscape With a Criss-Crossed Plot and Strong Ensemble

Jimmy (Twilight’s Jackson Rathbone) and Maggie (Narcos’ Andrea Londo) keep meeting. Not in real life, mind you, but in each other’s dreams. They’ll bump into one another in waking life too, occasionally passing on the El and wondering why the face through the window looks so familiar. How they are connected, and what it all means is the conceit of writer/director Hugh Schulze’s warmly buoyant feature Dreaming Grand Avenue. Produced by Newcity Chicago Film Project, it is an ode to urban waywardness and the redemptive power of community bonds. And while it might not go as deep into its mythology or dream logic as audiences might expect, it is a film that wears its heart and its city proudly on its sleeve. And it makes up for its sometimes goofy concept with a cinematic sincerity and charming ensemble cast.

Dreaming Grand Avenue

Image courtesy of Newcity Chicago Film Project

Central are Jimmy and Maggie, a pair of good-hearted though down-on-their-luck late 20-somethings. Jimmy is an artist who bristles at the corporate work that his type-A girlfriend (Bryce Gangel) encourages him to chase; he’d rather sketch birds at the Lincoln Park Zoo and decompress in bubble baths. Maggie, on the other hand, is an early childhood teacher plagued by nightmares of Chicago’s slain youth. She lights vigil candles in her apartment and writes the names of the dead on a growing list on her apartment wall; in an effort to stop the nightmares, she enlists the help of a sleep clinic, where her dreams are tracked and studied, removed of all magic by Dr. Wandervogel (Tiffany Bedwell) and chalked up to electric impulses.

Aside from the Grand Avenue train stop of the title, the pair meet in a dreamscape bookstore, exchanging glances and poetry recommendations. They’re both visited individually by Jack Yancy, a self-described Dream Detective played by Chicago theater stalwart and celebrated artist Tony Fitzpatrick. Yancy was hired by the mysterious Andromeda (Twin Peaks’ Wendy Robie), proprietor of her own “dream lounge,” who aims to save Maggie from modern medicine’s grasp; within Maggie’s dreams is the key to something, and Jimmy, who separately is enlisted by Yancy to help with another client’s odd request, might just be the one who can help unlock it.

Maggie and Jimmy are both idealists, dreamers in both sleep and waking life, navigating a world that demands they compromise in order to squarely fit in. In Jimmy, Schulze is exploring how external pressures from work and romantic relationships can extinguish a creative flame, and lead to a uniquely modern depression. And Maggie is up against a social structure that prioritizes productivity over connection and communal care; not only does she struggle with absent parents at her job, but her own father (Tony Castillo) considers her a failure because of her chosen career.

Throughout Dreaming Grand Avenue the spaces of waking and dream life continue to blur, and that is where the film is at its most frustrating. A strange shadow agency of nefarious dream agents, Chicago’s Potawatomi tribe, and the poet Walt Whitman all criss-cross through the plot, and I found it difficult to understand the rules of the game, as it were. It’s easy enough to fill in the gaps and imagine explanations given by movies that have traversed similar fantasy territory, but Schulze asks for a certain suspension of logic, and requires that the audience just go along for the ride.

And it’s a shame that Rathbone and Londo aren’t given more screen time together. They are a charming couple, once they find one another, but Dreaming Grand Avenue largely keeps them on separate journeys until the end. Though the film does benefit from a warm supporting cast, many whom I’ve seen on stages throughout Chicagoland, including Ty Olwin, Jay Worthington, June Thiele, and A.C. Smith. Dreaming Grand Avenue is an ambitious picture, and with the other offerings from Newcity Chicago Film Project like Signature Move and last year’s Knives and Skin, makes a great claim for the Windy City as a fertile bed of cinematic inspiration. Have you ever wanted to see folk-art sketched out across the deck of a Shoreline Sightseeing ship, or watch Walt Whitman heckle slam-poets at the Green Mill? Dare to dream.

Dreaming Grand Avenue premieres at the ChiTown Movies Drive-In on Wednesday, September 23, then opens theatrically at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre and Showplace Icon on Friday, September 25. The film will also be available via Music Box Theatre’s virtual cinema. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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