Spaghetti Junction

Spaghetti Junction (2023)

“Once upon a time, things made sense,” says young August Greenfield (Cate Hughes) in voiceover at the beginning of Spaghetti Junction. “My family made sense, and things seemed glued together, in their place. But then one night in July, everything changed.”   

Where August’s first four words are the conventional introduction to a fairytale, the rest is suggestive of domestic trauma. Spaghetti Junction is both. For while it follows the tried-and-tested trajectory of many an indie debut feature in showing a young person’s coming of age over a transformative summer, it also adopts the dreamy tropes of something rooted less in suburban realism than in adolescent fantasy. “How do I know I’m not imagining you? Imagining this?”, August will later ask her new, otherworldly friend (Tyler Rainey). The truth is that neither she nor we can know. For writer/director Kirby McClure carefully confounds the vehicle and tenor of his rites-of-passage metaphor, overlapping and intertwining different strands of narrative and genre, all inextricably woven together into a spaghetti junction where both grounded naturalistic drama and ethereal sci-fi mystery can smoothly intersect.

There is an actual spaghetti junction in McClure’s film, situated near the dysfunctional home where August, her older sister Shiny (Eleanore Miechkowski) and their father David (Cameron McHarg) live – but the vehicular interchange too is as much an evocative metaphor as a concrete reality. For its looping, criss-crossing interchange of motorways suggests not only contact between people on different, parallel journeys, but also the very principles of the American dream: the freedom of the open road, with its promise of a mobility that is as much social as geographic. Ironically, though, the indebted Greenfield family who live in its shadow are very much stuck right where they are, and going nowhere. 

Former athlete August embodies immobility: for the same car accident that implicitly killed her mother has left her an amputee, so that she now limps along with a crutch as she adjusts to her prosthetic foot. David, who we first see, in a flashforward, trying frantically to race home along the highway verge while incongruously handicapped by a child’s pink bicycle that is far too small for him, has lost his wife, will soon lose his car (that great symbol of mobility) and his job, and is also losing himself to alcoholism as he struggles to cope with keeping his family together. Meanwhile Shiny dreams of bailing to Florida with her skeezy boyfriend Antonio (Jesse Gallegos), although the only way to finance that departure is to descend into drug dealing and criminality, and to leave behind all that she formerly loved.

With Shiny growing up fast and drifting away, August spends more time by herself – and is summoned by visions in her dreams to a strange, shape-shifting figure who lives like a fairytale troll in a ‘cave’-like storm drain, who has assumed the form of a missing Black teen, and who claims to be engaged in a cosmos-wide quest for the substance that will help defeat a galaxy-devouring monster.  He too is stuck – on Earth, in that drain – perhaps ‘forever’, and enlists August to help him in a series of local and not-so-local missions to get him back off planet. Like her sister, August is looking for a ride out of her present circumstances, and she might just have found – or at least conjured – it in this peculiar fellow whose status as a ‘Traveler’, and whose compulsion to get moving again, mirror her own adolescent itinerary of ambitions and aspirations.

“Your world is going through some growing pains,” the Traveller tells August, in words that apply equally to his addressee. August is indeed changing. She is beginning to draw unwelcome attention from men like Antonio, and even her drunken father has to make a conscious effort to pull himself away from her, uncomfortably remarking how much she now looks like her mother. In this context, when August is shown eating Fruit Loops, it is hard not to think of Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004), which also featured both the luridly coloured cereal and aliens as allegories of a dysfunctional, disturbing adolescence. Here too, all these close encounters might just be an expression, through the language of oneiric fantasy, of August’s sense of alienation and her deep desire for escape, even as she struggles to follow the confused call of her own shifting biology, and to feel needed, loved and whole again.

This tale of aliens and humans temporarily travelling parallel paths on (and maybe off) Earth has obvious antecedents in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1979) and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), John Carpenter’s Starman (1984), John Sayle’s Brother From Another Planet (1984) and more recently Jacob Gentry’s Night Sky (2022). Yet McClure, modulating his film’s rarefied vibe with a sweet synth-driven score by Health, links August’s singular adventures to a broader longing – hopeless and melancholic – among America’s more marginalised denizens for change, for romance, even for broader horizons and a better life somewhere else. Spaghetti Junction is ultimately an optimistic, upward-looking story of a girl’s imaginative metamorphosis, even if its fairytale scenario remains tinged with pain and loss.

strap: Kirby McClure’s feature debut uses sci-fi and fantasy to modulate a disabled girl’s coming of age and longing for escape

© Anton Bitel