Hundreds, if not thousands, of people left New York City in the early days of its massive COVID wave back in March 2020; in what felt like the twilight hours of life as we knew it, many sought out family they’d once chosen to be far from in order to squeeze in a little more time together, no matter what happened. This cosmopolitan exodus brought director David Siev and his camera back to his family home in Bad Axe, Michigan, where he sought to film life as it began anew.
Siev’s parents — Chun, a Cambodian immigrant, and Rachel, a Mexican-American — met in the 1980s in the restaurant industry in Detroit. With their kids, the two moved far up north to the small town of Bad Axe where they ran a donut shop for many years. With money from their daughter Jaclyn, who took on a white-collar job in Ann Arbor after college, Chun and Rachel transformed their donut shop into a classic American-type restaurant called “Rachel’s.” Like many food and entertainment values, they saw a steep drop-off from business during the early days of the pandemic, putting the family’s emotional and financial stability in question.
Siev is there firsthand to witness Bad Axe, bones and all, as his parents, Jaclyn, her husband, and his little sister Raquel and her boyfriend Austin navigate the fast-moving changes towards the hospitality industry during a time of rampant death and strict social distancing. He charts the family’s social justice awakening in the summer of 2020 — even towns with only 3,000 residents had Black Lives Matter rallies — and into the increasingly polarized 2020 election. It’s hard not to feel like the documentary hits a bit close to home, the memories of that year seeming both alien and too close for comfort. Time and again, Siev demonstrates a willingness to sit in that discomfort, reminding us of how we disinfected everything and fought with raised voices about masks.
It was hard not to think while watching: this is the most set-in-Michigan movie of all time. Siev’s portrait of Bad Axe captures the wildly disparate facets of small-town Michigan life, from the Nazis and the rampant gun ownership, the lack of recycling and cheap restaurant food, to the miraculous skies and beautiful greens, the local camaraderie and budding pockets of diversity. A big-city filmmaker returning to his hometown to document the lives of his family members has the potential to swing condescending, but “Bad Axe” treats all the members of the Siev family as fully-realized figures.
The Sievs fight, and they laugh. No one comes out of the film looking their best, but rather as a family pushed to the brink of what they stand for, for better and worse. Chun’s hard-nosed refusal for the restaurant to stand for racial justice butts up against Jaclyn’s stubborn insistence of “if not now, then when.” Rachel strives to keep the family together, knowing youngest daughter Raquel may soon leave them after graduating from college.
There are a handful of moments in which Siev’s sentimentality shines through, to the film’s detriment. In addition to footage from the Cambodian Killing Fields, he splices in footage from his own short film “Year Zero,” set during the massacre and starring his father. There’s no doubt that Siev was committed to the accuracy of his work, but it’s hard not to feel like you’re watching a sizzle reel within an otherwise stronger film.
Later, however, Siev’s documentary comes into question within the film itself: a link to the film’s crowdfunding page leads more radical factions of Rachel’s customer base to boycott the establishment, going so far as to attract the attention of a group of white supremacists in a nearby town. That the danger is real and prevalent is a strong point of fear for the Sievs, both to their personal health and safety as well as the restaurant’s. If it wasn’t for their son’s film — and they’re quick to remind him that he doesn’t really live in Bad Axe — maybe they’d be getting by just fine.
At its best, “Bad Axe” is a family portrait, dynamic and curious and funny. It’s to Siev’s benefit that he belongs to one of the most charismatic families of all time, whose unending curiosity in each other and their respective wellbeing keeps the engine chugging along. Though the greater political and social implications of the documentary often fall short, this perhaps only makes “Bad Axe” that much more interesting in structure, if not in context. That the Sievs are only motivated towards socio-political activism once it affects them personally is no doubt true of a lot of Americans.
Siev himself, though appearing rarely on camera, is clearly juggling a number of feelings about his family and all that they do in spite of and perhaps because of his absence from behind the camera. It’s hard to forget that, at the end of all of this, he still has another home to which he will return.
“Bad Axe” opens in US theaters and on-demand Nov. 18 via IFC Films.