Portrait of a Small-Town Michigan Family – The Hollywood Reporter
A deeply personal example of shape-matching function, David Siev’s documentary bad ax is the story of a young filmmaker at a crossroads trying to figure out how to make a movie about his family at a crossroads in a city at a crossroads like the whole world was at a crossroads.
If you’ve taken any missteps when it comes to how you’ve changed your life to respond to the past two years of COVID-19 quarantine, you’ll be able to see a lot of messy artistic truth in Bad ax — and it’s even easier to find emotional resonance in this family saga.
Messy, yet powerful and personal.
In March 2020, on the eve of full pandemic shutdowns, Siev returned to his rural hometown of Bad Axe, Michigan. Two traffic lights. A Walmart. A main artery. 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 bow of bad ax starts by focusing on the restaurant, which faces the same uncertainty as all restaurants in the spring of 2020. How do you adapt to a primarily take-out business? How do you maintain a staff following a reduced influx of cash? How do you approach the possibility of eating outdoors? And then, once the restrictions start to be lifted, how do you deal with customers whose gratitude for a return to normal doesn’t extend to meeting mask requirements?
Corn bad ax is not just a family restaurant in the face of COVID. Events in the summer of 2020 take Jaclyn to the streets in protest with other staff, but in a small town in Michigan’s red pocket, marching for Black Lives Matter is no way to endear herself. of the whole community.
Rachel is Mexican-American and Chun survived the Killing Fields as a teenager in Cambodia. While their roots in Bad Ax run deep, it doesn’t take much more than a few protests and a crowdsourced trailer for David’s unfinished film to stir up animosity.
Amid growing tensions, Dave – a frequent presence as the voice behind the camera, an occasional presence in front of the camera and, in several key sequences, the focus of the documentary – attempts to protest that he meant bad ax like 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 Ax as a letter of love. love to the city. Bad Ax is not really a place as described here; it is an idea or point of contrast, especially with Chun’s memories of Cambodia.
Bad Ax might not be everyone’s American dream, but it is Chun’s American dream. It was there that he started a business and a family. It’s a place where he can show off his 2nd Amendment rights, own a lot of guns, and train his whole family in gun maintenance.
The American Dream, particularly the immigrant American Dream, is Siev’s focus, but it’s easy to sense his growing distraction from bigger American issues in the summer of 2020. His disbelief at the reactions to his trailer – he first returned to New York in the fall of 2020 hoping to find a movie in his hundreds of hours of footage – seems a bit hypocritical, but I admire that he obviously hasn’t re-edited the sequences. He just found a way to refocus the second half around individual personal journeys in an extended household that, during the pandemic, was filled with Sievs and their loved ones, each experiencing the moment of uncertainty in individual ways.
Jaclyn plans to start a family of her own, with her good-natured husband Michael, but she’s not sure she’s ready to play by her father’s rules or deal with the sparks that fly from their similar aggressive personalities. Raquel is about to graduate from college and although she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, she doesn’t want to be forced into accepting a permanent position at the restaurant. And David has to deal with being the brother who left Bad Axe; the film is, above all, his ongoing meditation on what his role as a partial outsider entitles him to in matters of family democracy.
The correction of trajectory in the second half makes bad ax feel unequal. Siev had never directed a feature-length documentary before, and the unprecedented form of storytelling at an unprecedented time in history justifies any inequity. He can’t always decide whether he’s making a big movie or a little movie, and specific elements, like the somewhat generic sequences used to portray the story of Chun in Cambodia, don’t really come together.
So it’s a small film, or at least an intimate film, and some scenes will make you laugh in recognition and more scenes will make you sniffle a bit, both happy and sad. I would have felt these emotions even without an authoritative score that leaves no reaction to chance. It’s not a love letter to a town in Michigan, but it’s a love letter to overcoming adversity with the help of family, business, identity.