Skyler Janssen, Michael Meinhold, Chun Siev, Jaclyn Siev, Rachel Siev, Raquel Siev, Austin Turmell DIRECTED BY
David Siev MPAA RATING
NR RUNNING TIME
100 Mins. DISTRIBUTED BY
IFC Films OFFICIAL WEBSITE
It's not surprising that David Siev's Bad Axe came away from its world premiere at SXSW earlier this year the recipient of a couple of awards - the Audience Award for Documentary Feature and a Special Jury Recognition for Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling.
Indeed, Bad Axe is remarkable in its intimacy and that's at least one of the reasons it's practically impossible to not fall in love with the film that is screening this week here in my hometown of Indianapolis at the Heartland International Film Festival. Already picked up by IFC Films, Bad Axe kicks off in March 2020 as Siev, an Asian-American filmmaker living in New York, decides to return to his Bad Axe, Michigan home where his family is just starting to deal with the impact of the pandemic while still running the family restaurant, Rachel's of Bad Axe. He begins filming his parents - father Chun, whose generational trauma as a survivor of Cambodia's "killing fields" will become more and more obvious over the course of the film, and mother Rachel, a Mexican-American for whom the restaurant is named. Despite being married and having a job, David's sister Jaclyn returns to assume responsibility for the restaurant so that Chun and Rachel can protect themselves from the pandemic. Raquel, the youngest sibling, is wrapping up college via Zoom yet also chips in as much as possible.
In the early going, Bad Axe appears to be simply another film about the impact of the global pandemic on a small business. However, Siev rather quickly begins making it much, much more. While Jaclyn has surprising success keeping the small business afloat, Chun struggles in his home environment. Always a bit volatile, it becomes evident that he's far more impacted by his past traumas than initially realized. He's not one for therapy, for cultural reasons not particularly surprising, and the outward signs of PTSD increasingly impact his own ability to function and his relationship with his family.
While the film's emotional resonance continues to build, Bad Axe builds into a strong sense of urgency as we become increasingly aware that while the Siev family attempts to embrace diversity within their community they are located in a more conservative small town that becomes increasingly riled up as racial tension builds nationwide and COVID restrictions become politicized. When Jaclyn makes the decision that Rachel's should publicly show support for a local BLM march, the tensions begin to impact the restaurant and the Siev family. After it becomes public that David is, in fact, filming pieces of the unrest the family begins getting harassed and Raquel finds herself being followed by young men in pick-up tricks. Chun, in turn, begins following her with a shot gun just in case.
The tension? Palpable.
Siev manages to somehow weave all of this into a cinematic tapestry that is startling in its intimacy yet also possessing of a fierce urgency and unsettling anxiety. It's never quite clear just how Bad Axe is going to end, though it's worth noting that despite taking its name from the small town where all this unfolds this is a film that at its very core is about the Siev family. Despite the tension that possesses the film, especially in the second half, Bad Axe is an intimate and loving story about David's love for his family and the resilience of immigrants and refugees. The restaurant, which remains (I checked even as I was writing this review), also serves as a familiar symbol of so many who've struggled to survive during the pandemic even as a myriad of societal tensions built around them.
The truth is rather fell in love with the Siev and their fierce dedication one another and to this land of opportunity where they now live. I just couldn't help but wonder if this land of opportunity offers them that same sense of loyalty and dedication.