Don’t Visit Bad Axe, Just Watch Bad Axe

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Don’t Visit Bad Axe, Just Watch Bad Axe

Movies are a communal experience and a joint undertaking, but as fundamental to the medium as those qualities are, few movies candidly accentuate either of them. This distinguishes David Siev’s Bad Axe from other movies released in 2022, fictional features and documentaries alike: It’s a movie about movies as the product of a village, or in Siev’s case his focal point of study, his whole damn family. It’s also how the movies are an excellent tool for planting catharsis. But catharsis isn’t solely the director’s reward: The benefits are reaped by their collaborators and viewers, too. Bad Axe, a product of place, time, and circumstance, is a thickly layered reminder about that unique quality.

Bad Axe rests in rural Michigan, two and a half hours away from Ann Arbor, where David’s older sister, Jaclyn, lives with her husband Michael, and the same distance from Lansing, the state capital, where in May of 2020, armed looney tunes gathered for what they would call a “protest” but what those of us living on Earth recognize as intimidation spurred by raw ignorance. As the film begins, David, Jaclyn and Michael are holed up with their mother, Rachel, and father, Chun, in their lovely, spacious enough home, joined by their two other siblings, Raquel and Michelle, and their significant others, David’s fiancée Kat and Raquel’s boyfriend Austin. It’s the moment before the great plunge, where the COVID-19 pandemic forced the nationwide issuance of stay at home orders plus the shutdown of all non-essential businesses.

You remember where you were when the news hit. All of us do. Bad Axe time-warps its audience back to those terrifying, awful first days of what became years, lasting right up to now (and continuing into tomorrow and beyond); David’s home video footage, which he shot seemingly as a way of maintaining his sanity under conditions of lockdown combined with relentlessly close proximity to his loved ones, drops us back in 2020 as individuals and as witnesses. Bad Axe invites us to relive a period which none of us want to relive, but through the mounting travails of the Sievs, which worsen as the film glides along and uncertainty bleeds into eternity. The deck is precariously stacked against them off the bat; they run a restaurant, named after Rachel, and they’re a Cambodian Mexican American family in rural, Trump-country Michigan.

Chun survived the Cambodian Killing Fields and relocated with what was left of his family to Romeo, Michigan. He’s an American. This is irrelevant to people who singly define “American” as “white.” Bad Axe jabs an angry finger at nationalism and ethnocentrism, while parceling out dignity for Chun, whose martial arts prowess and firearms expertise are excellent reasons not to mess with him; for Rachel, Jaclyn, Michelle, and Raquel; and for David, who, as the filmmaker, is given a partial pardon from beating back the harassment the Sieves face as the movie takes us further into COVID, and the closer to the 2020 election.

David isn’t immune to the unpleasantries, of course: The legions of indignant Karens writing letters to Rachel’s at Bad Axe, outraged by either the establishment’s masking policies or naked anti-Trump stance, the contempt shown his family by local anti-mask heehaws on the premises, or the threats made against them by members of actual white supremacist militias, seen throwing Nazi salutes on the sidelines of a Black Lives Matter march through the town center-a stain on an event of hope and unity. They’re cowards, naturally, hiding their faces behind the standard issue insecure hatemonger’s uniform of dress-up ammo vests and Punisher bandanas.

Jaclyn’s far braver, getting up in their faces and reading them to filth without a second thought to their assault weapons. What’s to fear? These men carry their guns the way a child carries a stuffy. But David’s brave, too. His decision to make Bad Axe is an act of courage unto itself. The Sievs could have kept their heads down during COVID-19 and the Trump presidency. They could have hunkered down and simply survived. That they did not, and that David accepted the endurance challenge of setting their stories to film, is proof of grit and renders Bad Axe a work of generational perseverance. And in Bad Axe’s character, the specificity of the Sievs’ ups, downs, hardships, and breakthroughs, we feel the gasket turn on a font of relief universal to all of us who reacted to the pandemic and the sideshow administration with despair, but gained from both renewed senses of compassion, fellowship, and purpose.

So as not to inflate Bad Axe’s stature: This is a humble movie. It is not flashy. It has no pretense. It does not have overblown ambitions, and it never puts on airs. It’s a simple film about complicated, often painful confirmations about the country we all call home, and about optimism for what that country can look like when people share it with each other; it’s about what happens when your worst nightmare come true; for Chun, it’s also about suffering a nightmare so dreadful that the foundational trauma of your youth seems preferable by comparison. But it’s especially about the way movies change the people who make them and the people who watch them. Bad Axe is a gift.

Director: David Siev
Release Date: November 18, 2022

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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