The Siev family dynamic is as chaotically diasporic as it is culturally diverse. Formed from the marriage of a Cambodian survivor of the Killing Fields and a Mexican-American, the Sievs long ago set up shop in Bad Axe, Michigan. It’s the seat of Huron County, where Lake Huron is a few miles to the north and the population barely tops 3,000.
Eldest daughter Jaclyn works a corporate job in Ann Arbor but also runs her family’s restaurant, the popular Rachel’s Food & Spirits (named for the family’s matriarch), and drives 2 ½ hours on weekends to work there. Younger daughter Raquel is finishing her degree at the University of Michigan, uncertain of life’s next steps. Meanwhile, son David is a fledgling New York filmmaker.
In early 2020, the Sievs gathered for a family cruise, and a week later, their world turned over with the nation’s pandemic lockdown. Like many restaurateurs, the family recognized uncertainty and unreliability in the old way of doing things and radically reconceived its business model as best it could amid the constantly moving goalposts of public health. But the margins shrank while tension at home grew. Jaclyn and her white husband, Michael, temporarily relocated to Bad Axe, working professional jobs remotely and forming a pod with their parents, Chun and Rachel, who won’t listen to their kids and stay home where it’s safest. Meanwhile, Raquel must finish college online, and David, who has also ventured back to Michigan, takes the opportunity to film everything, from joyous meals to very tense Settlers of Catan sessions.
For the Sievs, the knee-jerk racist response to anyone of Asian descent amid the pandemic presents its own challenges. But the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers further intensifies racial tension across the Upper Midwest and, eventually, the entire nation. Generally speaking, the Sievs enjoy a sort of cultural detente with the largely white, rural community of Bad Axe, which has long enjoyed the Sievs’ cuisine and celebrated the family’s pursuit of success in America. But that silently agreed-upon ascension and assimilation will be tested, as will the Sievs’ badge of “belonging” in a community where bigotry still blooms.
Jaclyn, Raquel and David’s persistence to participate in Black Lives Matter protests clashes with Chun and Rachel’s preference to lay low. This creates further confrontation within the Siev family and with more overtly racist denizens of Bad Axe and nearby towns — who start with aggressive anti-mask arguments at the restaurant, advance to threatening phone calls and, in some cases, escalate to stalking the Siev women as they leave the restaurant at night.
Executive-produced by Jeff Tremaine (of the Jackass franchise), Bad Axe, which hits VOD rental services on Friday, represents David Siev’s rollercoaster chronicle of a year in the life. Early on, the film feels a tad overscored and overstuffed, threatening to become a feature-length Google commercial about the power of togetherness in challenging times. However, its power and focus sharpen as it goes. The result is one of 2022’s best documentaries. Bad Axe becomes a stunning, multifaceted work deftly tying together its seemingly disparate elements into a tough-minded tapestry rich with character, conflict and, ultimately, compassion for clashing ideologies within the Siev family. It’s fascinating to watch Jaclyn, Raquel and David’s adaptations shift from survival mode to activism, as well as how Chun and Rachel must compromise with their adult children and how all five of them must peacefully live together.
Bad Axe also doesn’t suggest any easy fix for how to piece together how the Siev family mosaic — which also includes Raquel’s Black long-term boyfriend, Austin, and his white adoptive parents — is shattered by all manner of myopic ignorance. David Siev also expertly integrates the cultural connotation of his father Chun’s survival of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge genocide, depicted both in flashes of David’s fictitious film inspired by Chun’s experience and raw, painful on-camera conversations with his father. Chun’s survivalist instincts have spread to his second generation, as Rachel, Jaclyn and David all received martial arts and weapons training (of which we see flashbacks and lightning-rod present-day refresher courses). Amid the trouble stirring in Bad Axe, Chun recognizes the incendiary nature of the ideals he escaped; the only thing he wants to set ablaze is his trash. But as he says when imploring his kids to be cautious: “I’m not the kind of father who can sit down and watch a trial.” Chun’s evolution toward mustering as much empathy as he can is one of the film’s more surprising, and effective, subtexts.
In a rarity for the documentary genre, David’s own delusions about the documentary he’s creating also generate effective conflict. In October 2020, David released a trailer in search of crowdsourced funding to finish the film. He sees it as a love letter, but it’s written with a poison pen, and this sets off a further firestorm of fury across Bad Axe that further cuts into the family business. He lets it feel totally reasonable to wonder whether he is regularly pushing it too far, such as when he encourages the bellowing ire of belligerent anti-maskers, and when his mother yells at him about his easy escape of the consequences by going back to New York, she’s right.
Bad Axe does end on a note of decided hope for the Sievs (and, in an electoral sense, the nation at large). But the tempered and tentative hugs in their celebrations illustrate: All of this time where we were thrown together, as for so many families, helped the Sievs see that any American victory is just a step, not a finish line.