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‘Dreaming Grand Avenue’: There’s poetry in the emotion of a transcendental Chicago story

Strangers in real life, a man and a woman find each other in their dreams in a highly original depiction of the city.

Jimmy (Jackson Rathbone, left) and Maggie (Andrea Londo) encounter the poet Walt Whitman (Troy West) in “Dreaming Grand Avenue.”
NewCity Chicago Film Project

She is the woman of his dreams, and he is the man of her dreams — literally. They’ve never met in real life.

Jimmy lives in Chicago and Maggie lives in Chicago, but they’re traveling their respective journeys on parallel tracks — at least during the day. They HAVE met, when both were dreaming.

Perhaps they’ll find each other one day in the real world, in waking life. We shall see.

This is the intriguing setup to writer-director Hugh Schulze’s “Dreaming Grand Avenue,” a small but ambitious and metaphysical and deeply poetic (in more ways than one) gem with big ideas, stunningly original visuals of Chicago — and beautifully honed performances from a cast that includes talented young actors and some veteran performers who bring a grounded, real-world, seen-it-all wisdom to their respective and somewhat mystical roles.

Jackson Rathbone brings a kind of young Skeet Ulrich vibe (and I like Skeet Ulrich so I’m saying this is a good thing) to his performance as Jimmy, a talented but struggling artist trying to find his place in the world. Bryce Gangel does fine work as Jimmy’s girlfriend Amy, who has a grown-up job and exists in the grown-up world and has been supportive of Jimmy chasing his dreams, but can only hold on for so long before she has to get on with her life.

Elsewhere in Chicago, Maggie (a luminous and authentic Andrea Londo) loves her job at a day care center where the children adore her — but Maggie has a heavy heart, as every report on the local news about another child caught in the crossfire of gun violence hits her as if these kids were her own. Maggie can’t even escape her troubles by drifting off to sleep, as her dreams are so intense and so real, she’s even agreed to be the subject of an ongoing and perhaps pioneering dream study led by Dr. Emily Wandervogel (Tiffany Bedwell, excellent) who has her own ulterior motives for trying to get inside Maggie’s head.

In a development straight out of a “Twilight Zone” episode, Jimmy is recruited by one Jack Yancy, who is a “dream detective,” and it’s great to see Chicago’s own artist/actor/wearer-of-many-hats Tony Fitzpatrick as Yancy, who looks and sounds like he’s in a 1950s film noir as he barks out lines such as, “You want a juice? I’ve been juicing,” and, “I’m a dream detective, Ace.”

What does that mean, exactly? Let’s just say Yancy sends Jimmy on a dark and strange mission that has Jimmy confronting demons from his past and reconsidering his purpose in this world. Meanwhile, Maggie can’t shake herself free from dreams in which bodies float in a lagoon, and her own hands are covered in blood.

Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick plays a guy calling himself a “dream detective” in “Dreaming Grand Avenue.”
NewCity Chicago Film Project

“Dreaming Grand Avenue” takes on the nightmarish qualities of a supernatural horror film, with shape-shifting crows and a primordial black ooze seeping through the walls of a cell-like structure, and we haven’t even yet mentioned Wendy Robie (“Twin Peaks,” “The People Under the Stairs”) as Andromeda, a kind of guardian angel of the dream world, and how about Walt Whitman (Troy West) hanging out at the Green Mill Lounge on Poetry Slam night? (In a later scene, asked if he’s THE Walt Whitman, the poet replies: It’s a big world. I’m A Walt Whitman…)

It all ties together, promise.

“Dreaming Grand Avenue” consistently paints Chicago in a unique light; even the obligatory L transition shots are executed with originality. We visit familiar landmarks and lesser-known pockets of the city, with cinematographer Christopher Rejano always finding fresh angles and compelling tones of light to help paint the picture. The fragments of this story shine like broken glass in the late afternoon sun; eventually, some of these elements will be glued together by a common thread, while others will simply … be. A late montage set to “There Was a Child Went Forth” by Walt Whitman — THE Walt Whitman — is among the most moving and lasting sequences in any film I’ve seen this year. There was a child went forth every day, and the first object he looked upon, that object he became …

Beautiful stuff.

“Dreaming Grand Avenue” will have its world premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday, with a second showing at 10 p.m., at ChiTown Movies, 2343 S. Throop St. The director and several stars will be present. For tickets, go to dreaminggrandavenue.com