Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Bad Axe (2022) dir. David Siev

Available on VOD Friday, 11/18


If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that there is indeed a thin line between order and chaos– and it isn’t the police. Rather, it’s the people in our communities who keep us fed: grocery clerks, line cooks, delivery drivers, restaurateurs, and countless others who couldn’t afford to miss a beat as the rest of us hunkered down in indefinite quarantine. Elon Musk or Donald Trump could die tomorrow, and if you didn’t have a phone or internet access you probably wouldn’t notice for weeks; if your local Stop & Shop suddenly shut down, there would be panic in the streets. We all clung to GrubHub and UberEats as a last vestige of normalcy as the world spun into chaos; once restaurants reopened, it was a matter of days before servers reported a rash of unprecedented rudeness at the hands of customers. I was eligible for my first vaccine shot before the kids who bagged my groceries every week throughout the pandemic, and that alone is enough to make me want to burn it all down and start all over again.

As I’m sure countless filmmakers did across the country, David Siev attempted to stave off the quarantine crazies in the early days of the pandemic by picking up his camera and filming a documentary about his family. But as luck (or something) would have it, the Sievs are no ordinary family: as both a mixed AAPI family and the proprietors of Rachel’s, a family bar and grill in the rural, predominantly white town of Bad Axe, Michigan, the Sievs were uniquely poised to observe both the resilience and the ugliness that came to the surface over the course of the pandemic. David began filming shortly after the abrupt shutdown in March of 2020 (the film opens with his sister, Jaclyn, flipping numbly through photos she took on a cruise just a week earlier), and kept rolling through Joe Biden’s electoral victory in November. The milestones in between will be familiar to anyone more than a couple of years old– the Black Lives Matter protests, the 100,000th death, the rocky first steps toward reopening– but seeing them again through the eyes of those affected so directly will make them hit home all over again.

Over the next few years we will likely see dozens of documentaries about the COVID-19 pandemic, and dozens more shot within the confines of quarantine. But it is unlikely that a film will weave these two threads together as strikingly as Bad Axe. This is a very personal film– quite literally a home movie– and Siev’s love for and familiarity with his family allows him to translate them into fully fleshed movie characters: stern father Chun (or “Baba”), whose family escaped the killing fields of Cambodia when he was a child to embrace the American dream; matriarch Rachel, a Mexican American woman who has worked in restaurants her entire life; outspoken older sister Jaclyn; and younger sister Raquel, who is forced to complete her senior year of college remotely (there is a third sister as well, but one senses she preferred to avoid the spotlight). declined to be featured). It is easy at this point to feel numb to the multitude of COVID-era anxieties, but reliving those days vicariously through these characters– these people– is a sobering reminder of the real-world consequences.

It helps that, despite the seemingly insular nature of Bad Axe as a community, the staff of Rachel’s represents a wide range of viewpoints. As an Asian-Latino-American family, the Sievs are touched directly by the hateful rhetoric of their neighbors (who, in turn, seem largely oblivious toward the effect their massive Trump signs might have on others). Raquel’s boyfriend is a Black man raised by white parents, while the restaurant’s floor manager, a childhood friend, is a onetime Trump voter who has come to rethink her position. When a Black Lives Matter protest is organized in downtown Bad Axe, the entire family (save for Baba, who prefers to keep a low profile) turns out, clashing directly with the heavily armed, openly fascist counter-protestors. This leads to some of the most chilling scenes in the film, in which the Siev children are repeatedly trailed home by sinister pickup trucks, but it also serves as a galvanizing point. At a certain point during the pandemic, the goal became not to survive, but to become better versions of ourselves, and it’s inspiring to watch this family experience this revelation in real time.

I referred to Bad Axe as a “home movie” earlier, but I feel like I should qualify that. To compare a feature documentary to a home movie is often a mark of derision, connoting amateurishness and indulgence. There is a little bit of that, to be sure (particularly during an epilogue that drags on a few minutes too long), but the film is deceptively complex from a narrative standpoint. When David foregrounds himself as a character, it feels less like Michael-Moorish self-aggrandizement than a deconstruction of the documentary form. One of the film’s major turning points comes when David posts a fundraising trailer for the film itself, prompting a wave of “anti-woke” backlash on the restaurant’s Facebook page. Later, a heated (and all-too-familiar) encounter with a band of anti-maskers ends with Jaclyn looking directly into the camera and spitting, “David, you fucking idiot,” acknowledging that the presence of a camera may not do much to placate a swarm of performative right-wing assholes. To make a movie during a pandemic is, inevitably, to make a movie about one’s own experience, and the fact that David doesn’t relegate himself to fly-on-the-wall status is a refreshing bit of honesty.

The pandemic isn’t over; that much is clear. Though the world has reopened and vaccines have rendered us at least somewhat less susceptible to the virus, we remain isolated– physically, emotionally, psychologically– in ways that probably predate the pandemic itself, but have certainly been magnified over the past couple of years. Both the Sievs and their business survived, but they were exposed to the ugliness lurking in their own neighborhood, even among those who they had fed for years. But rather than being broken by the experience, they were emboldened to both find their voices and appreciate everything they have. Bad Axe won’t be the only film of its kind, but it will be hard to top in potency.

Bad Axe
dir. David Siev
100 min.

Available digitally and on demand Friday, 11/18

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