Words by Siddhant Adlakha
An intimate documentary with ambitious emotional scope, Bad Axe is a chronicle of director David Siev’s family—his Cambodian American refugee father, his Mexican American mother, and his three sisters—during the COVID-19 pandemic in Bad Axe, Michigan. It chronicles not only their struggles as restaurateurs during the 2020 lockdown, but the subsequent embers of ethnic tensions surrounding them as an Asian American family in a mostly white town, during a pivotal period for racial reckoning in modern American history. By following his family day and night, Siev offers us practically unfettered access to personal moments, as we witness his movie take shape over several months. However, while intriguing in concept, the spectacle of a documentary finding itself as it unfolds also yields an uneven focus. The result is a story whose “big picture” ends up too wide, and too scattered, to be fully affecting.
What works most in the movie’s favor is that it comes front-loaded with uncertainty, thanks to Siev’s juxtaposition between frenzied news broadcasts and eerily empty streets. The early days of the pandemic were rife with confusion and feelings of suspended animation, which Siev’s directorial instincts push him to capture, even if he doesn’t quite yet know who or what his movie is about. His sisters, Jaclyn, Michelle, and Raquel (and their respective significant others) are home from their jobs and academic lives in Ann Arbor, while Siev’s own visit from New York with his girlfriend has turned into an extended stay, with no end date in sight. The future of the family’s local eatery—Rachel’s, named after their mother—hangs in the balance, but the first hurdle they’re forced to cross is their own minor interpersonal tensions, as they scramble to navigate the unprecedented circumstances. In this way, Bad Axe starts out as a stunningly true-to-life reflection of the stresses of March-April 2020, when few truly knew how protracted and complicated the situation would become.
Siev’s focus falls largely on his older sister, Jaclyn, who, along with her husband Mike, works a remote corporate job while running the restaurant’s day-to-day business. There’s a richness to Siev’s depiction of Jaclyn, almost a reverence for his big sister that sits alongside a gradual recognition of her temperament (she frequently spreads herself thin and lets her frustrations fly in her parents’ direction). His mother and his other two sisters don’t quite find their way into the frame as often—if they do, it’s usually in passing—but after a while, Jaclyn’s relationship to their father, Chun, forms the movie's emotional backbone. It’s in following this father-daughter dynamic that Siev begins to find Bad Axe, an instinctive, cinéma verité portrait of generational tensions, between a refugee of the Cambodian Killing Fields who assimilates and carries his burdens in silence, and a loud-and-proud daughter who believes that America, and all the advantages of Americanness, need to be fiercely nurtured, if not outright demanded.
As Bad Axe and America at large begin to reopen, societies begin to come back into contact with themselves with renewed political tensions. The Sievs live in a mostly white and conservative town. So, the combination of fury at mask mandates, the heated nature of the approaching election, and the backlash towards widespread Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, leave the family in a tough position. Speaking out and attending rallies would mean being true to themselves, but it would also place an overt target on their backs, and undoubtedly affect the restaurant’s bottom line. Siev follows his sisters’ involvement in demonstrations with a keen sense of these brewing tensions. He keeps one watchful eye on the outspoken Jaclyn, and one cautious eye on the armed white supremacist counter-protestors nearby.
As these tensions cascade, and are exacerbated not only by the sisters’ social media activity, but by Siev’s own attempts to market and crowdfund for his movie, something within Bad Axe begins to unravel, and not necessarily for the better. On one hand, a confounding time to be alive demands equally confounding art—grey art, with no neat or easy answers—but on the other hand, the more complicated the situation becomes, the more confounded Siev and his movie begin to feel. The edit becomes practically overwhelmed by the sheer weight of everything unfolding in the family’s vicinity, from existing familial skirmishes, to the restaurant’s place in the township, to encroaching dangers posed by less kindly Bad Axe denizens. The film begins to zig-zag in and out of other minor subplots, like when one of Siev’s other sisters begins to consider her post-college future, and in the process, it often leaves its most visceral and affecting stories (like the Jaclyn-Chun dynamic) by the wayside.
Bad Axe, in the process of trying to find its purpose while it’s being made, lands on too many different threads, and is seldom able to weave them into a singular tapestry, of a multifaceted place or family. One of the sisters’ boyfriends, Austin, is a Black man raised by white parents, but the ensuing personal issues unearthed by the George Floyd protests reaching Bad Axe are given but a passing mention. Siev himself doesn’t often factor into the story either, other than when family members seem occasionally annoyed that he never puts down his camera. It’s perhaps accidentally revelatory of the outsidership he feels, as an artist in a more traditionally blue collar family (and as a New Yorker who doesn’t live in Bad Axe full time, as his mother reminds him at one point). But this, too, ends up just another dangling string on which the movie fails to pull.
When the film finally loops back around to the family’s story (primarily, Chun’s open wounds as a survivor of genocide, on which it doesn’t spend nearly enough time to find depth or meaning), there remains a looming disconnect between Siev’s individual portraitures and the bigger picture. His tale of a volatile place, at an equally volatile moment in time, rarely feels rooted in his haphazard inspection of generational history (or vice versa), resulting in climactic notes, set against the 2020 presidential election, that can’t help but ring false. Symbols for political ideology, like speeches delivered on television, begin to stand-in for the real beliefs and perspectives of his loved ones. What little victories he affords his family—fleeting moments of relief and elation that ought to feel enormous—become oddly didactic, thanks to the incompleteness of his cinematic family biography. Their joy is depicted as a given, stemming from the unfolding of real-world politics (whose tangible impact is seldom felt or explored), rather than that joy arriving as a meaningful contrast to the more rigorous and challenging moments between Jaclyn and Chun, or between the Sievs and Bad Axe at large. Keeping the camera running, without a definitive purpose in mind, can only yield so many happy accidents.
Ultimately, while Bad Axe strives to balance the personal and the political, it rarely captures their thorny entanglements, beyond the initial realization that something is amiss (whether out in the streets, or at home, behind closed doors). That Siev strives to create art from such a personal place is deeply commendable. However, his attempts end up hampered by a viewpoint that may be far too close to his subjects to meaningfully frame them against their larger backdrops—whether their lineage as Cambodian Americans, or their fraught place within the ever-evolving landscape of modern America.
Published on November 18, 2022