Not long into watching Where You From, my friend Sabrina Lee’s wonderful new documentary about a trio of white rappers from rural Montana and Northern California, I had the sort of eye-rubbing moment that people have when their friends or siblings or children turn out to have actually and beautifully done something they said they were going to do. Sabrina (interviewed here) told me she was making a documentary on these white rappers from the middle of nowhere, and as I was watching it on the dvd she sent me, I kept thinking, “Wow. Sabrina did this. This is, like, a real movie.” Sabrina’s a fantastic ballet and modern dancer. And she still ranks as the funniest person I know, and the only person I’ve ever known who is able to rhyme freestyle while driving. (My world has not been overfilled with MCs.) But, making a movie? She can do that, too. (I should note that it is showing this Saturday at the San Francisco Frozen Film Festival. Check it out if you’re in the area.)
The first thing that gave me that she-did-this feeling was the look of the film in its first few minutes. She was able to grab Matthew Buzzell, a fellow graduate of North Carolina School of the Arts, to be her director of photography, and it turns out he’s really good, too. “Where You From” captures the Big Sky of Montana as both a dream and a void. It’s beautiful country that carries, as much as that paradigmatic Western sense of freedom, an uncanny press of hopelessness and isolation. Sabrina finds two rappers in Montana. One is an earnest and intelligent guy named Chris trying to make it as an indie-rapper with a real band, sort of like a white Roots. It’s sweetly ambiguous whether he’s looking for music-biz success or just a route back to his alcoholic dad. The other Montana guy, Tommy2Tones, is a harder case, a parolee with a dark history as a methhead who uses his music as a means to keep his life together so he can raise his sons. He seems at home when he’s spitting his rhymes alongside a pool table in a working-class bar. But when you see him, all mohawked and covered in prison ink but trying to sound serious and purposeful as he pushes his kid on a swing, the instability of the arrangement hits you viscerally. It’s very touching, but you’re asking yourself: How can this work?
The weirdness comes from Franco, who competes nationally as a battle MC while also living with his sister and artsy liberal mom in a book- and music-filled house in Fortuna, a small town in Humboldt County. There’s something perfect in the fact that this culturally enriched middle-class white kid is the battle MC. He excels in a format heavy on empty bluster and spur-of-the-moment rhymes, where he goes about sounding hard while looking unmistakably soft. If Chris and Tommy, in their different ways, provide the hip hop content, the hard-knock lives, Marco is more like the form.
In a graceful climax, “Where You From” captures these three lives as they take crucial turns. I think by then I had forgotten that it was my friend Sabrina’s movie and was just thinking this is a really good movie. Did I mention that my friend Sabrina did it?