A deeply personal example of form matching function, David Siev’s documentary Bad Axe is the story of a young filmmaker at a crossroads trying to figure out how to make a film about his family at a crossroads in a town at a crossroads as the entire world was at a crossroads.
If you’ve made any missteps when it comes to how you changed your life to respond to the past two years of COVID-19 quarantining, you’ll be able to see a lot of the messy artistic truth in Bad Axe — and it’s even easier to find emotional resonance in this family saga.
Messy, but potent and personal.
In March of 2020 on the eve of full pandemic shutdowns, Siev returned to his rural hometown of Bad Axe, Michigan. Two traffic lights. One Walmart. A main thoroughfare. And Rachel’s, the restaurant owned for decades by Siev’s parents Chun and Rachel and now operated with his older sister, Jaclyn, and younger sister, Raquel.
The arc of Bad Axe begins with a focus on the restaurant, which faces the same uncertainty as every restaurant in the spring of 2020. How do you adjust to a predominantly take-out business? How do you maintain a staff in the wake of a reduced influx of money? How do you approach the possibility of outdoor dining? And then, once restrictions start being lifted, how do you handle customers whose gratitude for a return to normal doesn’t extend as far as respecting mask requirements?
But Bad Axe isn’t just about a family restaurant dealing with COVID. The events of the summer of 2020 lead Jaclyn into the streets in protest along with other members of the staff, but in a small town in a red pocket of Michigan, marching for Black Lives Matter isn’t a way to endear yourself to the entire community.
Rachel is Mexican-American and Chun survived the Killing Fields as a teenager in Cambodia. Although their roots in Bad Axe are deep, it doesn’t take much more than a couple of protests and a crowd-sourcing trailer for David’s unfinished film to stir up animosity.
Amid the growing tensions, Dave — a frequent presence as a voice behind the camera, an occasional presence in front of the camera and, in several key sequences, the documentary’s focus — tries to protest that he meant Bad Axe as a love letter to the town of Bad Axe. There’s no sign of that interpretation in the finished 101-minute film, but it’s easy to see how he would interpret a love letter to his family and the opportunities they found in Bad Axe as a love letter to the town. Bad Axe isn’t really a place as depicted here; it’s an idea or a point of contrast, particularly to Chun’s memories of Cambodia.
Bad Axe wouldn’t be everybody’s American Dream, but it’s Chun’s American Dream. It’s the place he started a business and a family. It’s a place where he can showcase his 2nd Amendment rights, owning many guns and training his entire family in firearm maintenance.
The American Dream, specifically the immigrant American Dream, is Siev’s focus, but it’s easy to sense his growing distraction by bigger American issues in the summer of 2020. His incredulity at the reactions to his trailer — he initially went back to New York City in the fall of 2020 hoping to find a film in his hundreds of hours of footage — feels a bit disingenuous, but I admire that he didn’t evidently re-edit the footage. He just found a way to refocus the second half around the individual personal journeys in an expanded household that, during the pandemic, was packed with Sievs and their significant others, each experiencing the moment of uncertainty in individual ways.
Jaclyn is contemplating a family of her own, with good-natured husband Michael, but she isn’t sure that she’s prepared to play by her father’s rules or deal with the sparks that fly from their similar aggressive personalities. Raquel is about to get her college degree and although she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, she doesn’t want to be forced into taking a permanent position at the restaurant. And David has to cope with being the sibling who left Bad Axe; the film is, as much as anything, his ongoing meditation on what his role as a partial outsider entitles him to when it comes to the familial democracy.
The course correction in the second half makes Bad Axe feel uneven. Siev had never made a feature documentary before, and the unprecedented form of storytelling at an unprecedented moment in history makes any unevenness justified. He can’t always decide if he’s making a big movie or a little one, and specific elements, like the somewhat generic footage used to represent Chun’s history in Cambodia, don’t really come together.
So it’s a little movie, or at least an intimate movie, and some scenes will make you laugh in recognition and more scenes will make you a bit sniffly, both in happiness and sadness. I’d have felt those emotions even without an overbearing score that leaves no reaction to chance. It’s not a love letter to a Michigan town, but it’s a love letter to overcoming adversity with the help of family, of business, of identity.