When Life Doesn't Pan Out: T2 Trainspotting / by Travis American

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When T2 arrived at the Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, I had to talk my then-fiancée, now-wife Laura into going. She didn’t have any particular nostalgia for the 1996 original, and, frankly, an appeal to nostalgia seemed to be the movie’s main selling point. We didn’t have anything else to do with the afternoon, though, so she eventually assented.

By the time Young Fathers’ knockout track “Only God Knows” played over the final credits, we were both snotty messes. Nobody in the theater gestured to leave. It was like everyone needed a minute to pull themselves together. We hadn’t expected this. The reviews were solid (80% on Rotten Tomatoes!), but T2 mostly flew under the radar. Few of my friends bothered to see it, and I come from a punk-inflected milieu where the original is a touchstone. Still, not many movies wrecked me like this one.

It’s easy to imagine a version of T2 that was essentially a cash grab, an opportunity for Gen X and older Millennial alt-kids like me to spend a couple hours sentimentalizing. (When I shaved my head in college, a girl told me the look reminded her of Ewan McGregor in the smack-head lead role of Mark Renton. It felt like a huge complement.) But director Danny Boyle made the canny decision to make this kind of nostalgia a core component of the film. When we catch up with the main characters two decades after the first Trainspotting, they’re each a different flavor of pathetic. Jailed. Junky. Criminal. Lonely. Life—perhaps predictably—has not panned out for these guys. All they’ve got left are reminiscences about a period where even the most debauched self-destruction felt charged with meaning.

The film allows us to indulge along with the characters, but it makes a point to undercut this nostalgia at every turn. When Johnny Lee Miller’s Simon waxes about the first time he and Mark shared a needle (“Your blood flows through my veins”), Mark can’t help but check the time on his phone (“I’ve got a plane to catch!”). When Mark inevitably plunges into a new riff on the iconic “Choose Life” monologue, it doesn’t end with a crescendo, but with a sad acknowledgement that the joke “amused us at the time,” as though realizing that the real feeling behind his rant isn’t enough to keep him from sounding like a middle-aged windbag.

Despite this healthy skepticism, T2 recognizes how formative youth is, for good and bad. Mark, Simon, Spud, Begbie—it’s unclear how much they even like one another. Yet the gravitational pull of those early experiences—when they were forging themselves into the men they’d become—has bound them together in profound ways. It’s an era that needs to be reckoned with before any of them can move beyond their grossly protracted adolescence. The suicidal, still-addicted Spud literally writes his way out, putting their youth to paper to finally exorcise himself of a period that all the main characters still pine for.

Part of this movie’s emotional hold on me has to do with the moment I first saw it. Spring 2017 was in the heart of my post-PhD malaise (I write a bit about that time in my first post on this blog). I was 15 years younger than the characters onscreen and I’d never bottomed out into addiction or criminality, but I was viscerally feeling the distance between the hopes I’d had for myself of the reality of where I was. I’d spent years writing a novel that no agent seemed interested in representing. I’d limped my way to a doctorate that, it felt, qualified me only to adjunct courses for $3,600 a semester. I was disappointed and more than a little ashamed of where I’d ended up, but I couldn’t see a way out or imagine a new iteration of myself.

In T2, I saw characters, far more broken than myself, coming to terms with where they were, and groping their way forward. The urgency and hope and expansiveness of youth had faded, but they were still there, sorting out how to continue being in the world. I don’t know how this movie will play for me in another phase of my life, one where I’m not feeling as vulnerable or broken. I could imagine it seeming mawkish or self-indulgent. Honestly, though, I don’t care. It was there when I needed it, and that’s enough.