Bad Axe is a brilliant, humanistic portrait of an immigrant family weathering COVID and the Trump era

David Siev’s love letter to his family is a heartwarming and empathetic look at the twin horrors of Trump-era racism and the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The past couple of years have seen the arrival of a large number of documentaries dealing in some way with the COVID pandemic, as well as no small amount of films chronicling the Trump presidency and the increased prevalence of the MAGA mindset. David Siev’s debut film, Bad Axe (the winner of the Documentary Feature Audience Award at this year’s SXSW Film Festival), combines the two approaches. While that combination alone might keep some people from watching it due to an inevitable sense of burnout regarding both topics, it should be known that those who are willing to pass on it on those grounds alone will be missing out on one of the best, most engaging documentaries to emerge this year. 

The title refers to the rural Michigan town where Siev grew up, and where his parents—Cambodian refugee father Chun and Mexican-American mother Rachel—own and manage Rachel’s, which began as a donut shop and which has over time evolved into a popular local restaurant. Their accomplishments are considerable but, as was the case for so many people, their version of the American Dream threatened to curdle with the onset of COVID in March of 2020.

Bad Axe (IFC Films)
Bad Axe (IFC Films)

At this time, David, who was living in New York, returns home to help sisters Jaclyn and Raquel take over the operation of the restaurant from their parents, so that they can stay isolated from illness It’s a decision that causes some degree of strife between them and their father. And at the same time, they try to figure out how to transform the place from now-banned in-person dining into a takeout place in order to keep it going.

Because Bad Axe, at least at the time, was considered to be a resoundingly pro-Trump area, many of the locals, even former regulars, considered the notion of masking in public to be an outrage. They even found themselves harassed by people eager to tar those of Asian heritage for supposedly being responsible for the spread of COVID. Things get even more complicated for the family that June when Jaclyn and Raquel (along with the latter’s African-American boyfriend) attend a local Black Lives Matter rally protesting the murder of George Floyd. Siev uploaded footage from it in a trailer posted to a crowdfunding site, leading locals to believe that the film would be a muckraking indictment of local racism instead of the “love letter” Siev initially envisioned.

This leads to increased harassment, including by people affiliated with neo-Nazi groups, threatening to drive a permanent wedge between the family and a community that seems determined to deem them as outsiders. While the children begin to despair, this is where Chun comes back into the picture. Having fled the nightmare of Cambodia’s “Killing Fields” with his family, he knows exactly what can happen if hate is allowed to flourish. His determination that it will not happen again on his watch leads to a number of quietly stirring moments.

Bad Axe (IFC Films)
Bad Axe (IFC Films)

In recounting the story of his family’s efforts to keep their business going during exceedingly trying times, Siev smartly distills many of the key anxieties of the last couple of years in ways that feel both universal and achingly personal. When Chun and Jaclyn butt heads over her decision to take over the operation of the restaurant despite Chun’s initial dismissal of her worries, for example, many viewers will no doubt recognize similar arguments they had with their own family members at the time.

He also does a good job of presenting the bigger picture of what was going on at the time without ever losing focus on his family, the obvious heart of the story. The result is quite striking, managing to feel like an expansive novel striving to capture the tone of the times. But also, (I mean this in the best possible sense) it feels like an intimate home movie, where you instantly recognize everyone on display in your own family.

Bad Axe is a touching exploration of a family struggling to persevere during unmoored times in which their long-established notions of community find themselves tested by forces no one could have possibly predicted. At the same time, it is also a wonderfully entertaining character study of a family unit whose resilience during those aforementioned adverse times should prove to be genuinely inspirational. There will doubtlessly be many more documentaries dealing with the pandemic and the Trump era in the years to come. But few will likely come close to equalling the quiet, bracing humanity of this film.

Bad Axe hits theaters and on demand November 18th.

Bad Axe Trailer:

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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