Identity

'Trainspotting' Wasn't Like My Life—But Watching It Made Me Feel Bolder

Ewan McGregor's portrayal of Mark Renton taught me to choose life—and midnight dialogues outside of clubs.
Photo via Film4 Productions

I still remember slipping the Trainspotting VHS into a boxy TV with an built-in video player. I was about 13, and a movie about a bunch of heroin addicts in a deprived area of Edinburgh was probably not the most age-appropriate watch. But Danny Boyle’s 1996 adaptation of the Irvine Welsh novel by the same name changed my life for years to come. I watched and rewatched it endlessly, and can recite large chunks of the script (in Russian, as the film was dubbed over, with a Scottish echo still audible underneath). Trainspotting gave me my first major pop culture crush: Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), the handsome junkie in a too-tight T-shirt and worn-out jeans. The lanky blue-eyed lad in worn skinny jeans was clearly a lost cause—but he had style, he had charisma, and he was intriguing. I’d never met anyone like him before.

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More than anything, it was Renton’s grin that got me. In the film’s opening scene, Renton sprints through Edinburgh’s streets with his loyal partner-in-crime and fellow junkie, Spud (Ewen Bremner). He’s hit by a car, leans on its hood, and lets out a manic laugh which rings with the sheer pleasure of being alive and not giving a fuck. To the punchy drums of Iggy Pop’s "Lust for Life," which punctuated the movie's famous "choose life" monologue ("Choose life…choose a job…choose a career…choose a family"), my teenage heart drummed like wild.

Trainspotting depicts the pains of drug addiction in the midst of a socio-economic crisis. It’s a dark world, but a relatable one for a Russian girl like myself, who grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-biggest city (known for its Imperial-era architecture, Fyodor Dostoevsky's novels, and ballet) in the period following the collapse of the USSR. I was a shy teenager who spent most of my time indoors, and in Trainspotting, I saw a world depicted on screen that didn’t appear too dissimilar to the landscape I lived in. If you lived in 90s Russia, Edinburgh’s squats and back streets didn’t look particularly ugly: Most of my peers, at some point, lived in housing projects and witnessed the crime and drug abuse which came with the post-Soviet crisis of our own. My childhood was safe, but darkness was always around the corner, and I was drawn to it in the stories I sought out.

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In my favorite scene from Trainspotting, Renton meets Diane (Kelly Macdonald) at local nightspot Volcano Club. "Atomic” by Blondie is on, Diane is wearing a pink sparkly sequin dress, and Renton’s in a washed-out yellow T-shirt that’s a bit too short and a bit too tight. In response to Renton’s awkward attempts to seduce her, Diane delivers a scathing and incisive monologue. "Do you find that this approach usually works?" she asks. "Or, let me guess: You've never tried it before. In fact, you don't normally approach girls—am I right? The truth is that you're a quiet, sensitive type but, if I'm prepared to take a chance, I might just get to know the inner you: witty, adventurous, passionate, loving, loyal. A little bit crazy, a little bit bad. But, hey—don't us girls just love that?"

I’d watch and rewatch that scene, wondering if I’d ever have a romantic encounter that reached the romance of Renton and Kelly’s first meeting. I never did: my romantic encounters were generally never that exciting. Entering adulthood, I’d felt the pains of conforming to feminine stereotypes. Russian women invest a lot of work in how they look and can serve up high-femme glamor: stiletto heels and evening makeup on a 6AM train to work. I’ve always respected the effort they invest in their appearance, but also found these punishing beauty standards to be alienating. As a grungy girl with an undercut, I didn’t fit into the high-femme glamour that’s typically required of Russian women. I couldn’t be that perfect woman. I often felt sexually invisible.

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Because I couldn’t actually meet a shy, yet cocky version of young Ewan McGregor with a buzzcut, my friends and I modelled ourselves after the Trainspotting men. We wore Doc Martens, were loud, and spent weekends drinking heavily in bars, smoking cigarettes and checking out boys in battered T-shirts and skinny jeans who looked like Renton. We could relate to them because Trainspotting emphasizes the trials of masculinity, and the toxic expectations we place upon men, simply because of their gender. A film about the spiritual displacement that comes from being a Scottish working-class man, Trainspotting depicts a world where gender norms are so restricted that men can only communicate in soccer references with their closest and best friends. I could understand how stultifying and oppressive that felt, and so could my friends. In fact, one friend related to Begbie—the anarchic, hyper-violent character played by Robert Carlyle—so much that she got caught carrying a foraging knife into a club one night. (We called her Begbie, teasingly, for months after.) If we could act like the Trainspotting men, maybe we could let go of some of the pressures to be perfect girls in Russian society.

Teenage crushes come and go, but my long-lasting obsession with Renton has changed me forever. It taught me that there is always a place for a certain ambiguity in love, attraction, and midnight dialogues outside of a club. It made me a sucker for a Scottish accent. Most important, my crush on Renton taught me to that you can carve out a role for yourself outside the stereotypes that are placed upon you by your gender: You just have to make it up as you go—or run—along.