(WARNING: Spoilers for T2: Trainspotting 2 below)
Nostalgia is a powerful thing, it plays a big part in shaping who we are and how we view the world. The sentiment that nostalgia conjures is often comforting; it allows us to escape to a better memory in difficult times. However, there are risks that come with looking back with rose-tinted spectacles. The influence that wistful feelings can have over a person can be a source of manipulation or a cause of stagnation. In recent years, #nostalgia has been a point of exploitation and has influenced major political events by taking advantage of people's desire for "the good old days."
T2: Trainspotting is a film that has nostalgia as a central theme; the fact that it's been two decades since the original film is a source of sentimental marketing in itself. The connections to nostalgia go far deeper than that, however. T2's story and characters highlight the impact nostalgia can have on a person's ability to move on and grow.
Living Off Past Glories
The most blatant display of detrimental nostalgia in T2 are the characters' constant referral to past events. Although the plot itself involves Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and Renton (Ewan McGregor) setting up a brothel business "for the future," they constantly revert to talking about the past. The most overt example of this would be when Sick Boy and Renton bombard Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) with tales of George Best. As they rattle off statistics and anecdotes about his greatness, Veronika just looks on in bemusement about their obsession. She vocalizes this bemusement later in the film, stating to Renton how in his country they only talk of the past, in hers they cannot wait to move on from it.
Ultimately, this obsession with the "glory days" of the past leaves them with a sense of dissatisfaction with their current situation. Renton initially lies to Sick Boy about his home life in Amsterdam — he tells him that he has a wife and two kids, conjuring images of the perfect nuclear family. In truth, his marriage is collapsing and there are no kids. Additionally, Sick Boy looks to con Renton who, regretful of where his life has led him, is roped in. Even the now incarcerated and estranged Begbie (Robert Carlyle) returns to the criminal life after escaping from prison and lashes out at his son for wanting a different path. In the end this dissatisfaction only creates a sense of hatred, either towards others or themselves (likely both).
Even Sick Boy and Renton's self-awareness about their living in the past does not motivate them to change. As the two of them prepare to rob a Protestant loyalist club they comment on how its members do the same. The only distinction from themselves is that the loyalists have maintained a sense of identity in their nostalgia for the "old ways." Despite knowing their failings, they continue to yearn for the past as a sense of reassurance, causing them to repeat the same habits in hope of recapturing it. Their failure to look forward leaves them in a state of dissatisfaction and develops apathy — or even aversion — towards bettering themselves.
Viewing The Past With Rose-Tinted Glasses
Not only do the characters indulge in nostalgia for reassurance, but they're also selective with what they choose to remember and how they choose to remember it. One of the most emotionally honest moments happens as they go to mourn Tommy. Renton and Sick Boy get into a dispute about the mistakes of 20 years ago. Sick Boy accuses Renton of being a tourist in his own past by returning home and pretending what he did changed nothing — especially since he gave Tommy his first heroin hit. Renton retaliates by reminding Sick Boy of how his addiction meant he neglected his infant child, causing it to die. The two of them look as if they will come to blows; instead, it cuts to them taking their first hit of heroin in 20 years.
Rather than face the reality of their past they pretend it didn't happen. For the two of them, it's easier to revert to the very thing that caused so much pain than face their trauma head on. This self-editing of history prevents the characters from ever truly rectifying their faults. They may find a way to suppress their negative qualities for a certain amount of time, but without honest self-criticism they will eventually do something that betrays themselves (or people close to them) all over again. Unsurprisingly, that's exactly what happens; Sick Boy wants to con Renton, Begbie wants violent vengeance, and Renton sleeps with Veronika. Yet despite this they all still feel sentimental for the past, failing to see the destruction their false sentimentality causes.
Fear Of Failure And Losing What You Have
Their desperation to find comfort in the past manifests from the fear of failure and not wanting to lose what little identity they once had. This theme runs right through both the original Trainspotting and T2. Sick Boy's "unifying theory of life" 20 years prior hypothesizes this very phenomenon:
The defeatist attitude of simply not being able to "hack it" once they age is exactly what causes the characters to continue their vicious cycles. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are aware of their diminished sense of identity but won't risk what little they have to regain it or create a new one.
This is part of the essence of the "choose life" mantra. Renton's original rant from Trainspotting wasn't about hating the establishment — he even summarizes by saying there are no reasons he chooses heroin over it — instead, it's about his fear of it. By choosing a "normal life" he fears it may never live up to what he really wants, so he escapes with drugs. This fear is reflected in the new rant. He talks about history repeating itself and wishing you'd done things differently. All of this relates to not being able to move on from the past and not facing their faults.
The one character that does eventually face his past is Spud (Ewen Bremner). Veronika encourages him to write down his stories. By doing so he allows himself to move on from it. Confronting the unfiltered memories lets him make a decision that breaks his selfish cycle of addiction. When he's offered the chance at money, instead of using it to fund his drug habit (like last time) he sends it to his family. Writing his past down lets him view it objectively and not repeat his mistakes all over again.
What T2: Trainspotting illustrates about nostalgia is the ease of using it to deny our faults. That's not to say you can't enjoy past experiences — we see that with Spud's story telling — but you shouldn't let the sentimentality prevent you from moving on. Living on the coattails of the past only prevents essential growth. Instead, by being objective about our shortcomings and mistakes that growth can happen.
What do you think was the most important lesson learned from T2: Trainspotting 2?