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Little Empty Boxes Review: Dubious Dementia Doc

Director Max Lugavere films his mother Kathy in the 2024 film Little Empty Boxes

Health writer Max Lugavere chronicles his mother’s dementia in Little Empty Boxes, a documentary whose profound human story is overshadowed by other agendas.

Directors: Max Lugavere & Chris Newhard
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 100′
US Release: April 19, 2024 (limited)
UK Release: TBA
Where to watch: in theaters

‘I feel like I’m going to be giving up soon enough,’ remarks Kathy, the central subject of Little Empty Boxes, in one of the film’s countless moments of bittersweet intimacy. Her rapidly developing dementia has rendered her slow, tired and pessimistic, but each encounter we get with her tells us more about the person she was. She has a dry sense of humour, a magnificent Jewish New Yorker accent and a penchant for collecting art and trinkets that both amazes and baffles her son, the health writer Max Lugavere.

It is a pleasure to be in Kathy’s presence, even if by this cruel twist of fate we are forced to mourn her almost immediately after meeting her. The film sees Lugavere, who takes a directing role alongside filmmaker Chris Newhard, move from sunny California to his hometown of New York City to assist his mother as she visits countless doctors and experts, the pair navigating this cruel and unpredictable illness together. Alongside their careful documentation of Kathy’s daily struggles, the directorial duo throws in generous amounts of home videos and family photos to paint a picture of Kathy beyond her present state, much to the film’s credit.

Then we get to the science stuff. For the uninitiated, Max Lugavere is a somewhat controversial figure in the world of health and wellness, advocating a high-fat, meat-heavy diet that has been lauded by many (indeed, he’s a New York Times bestselling author) and greatly criticised by others. He also spends a lot of time on Twitter/X complaining about ‘vegan propaganda’ and creates content for PragerU, a conservative media platform that has been accused on countless occasions of spreading misinformation around climate change, racism and LGBT+ issues. I know you shouldn’t judge a man by the company he keeps, but unfortunately much of this company shows up in Little Empty Boxes, as the film evolves into something quite different from what its first 30 minutes promised.

Little Empty Boxes Trailer (Max Lugavere)

On one side of the coin is a touching personal elegy to Lugavere’s mother; on the other, a platform for him and his alternative science peers to push their own agendas. Among the talking heads are Mark Hyman, Nina Teicholz and Steven Gundry, all of whom have been accused of promoting fad diets with dubious scientific backing, the latter also promoting unfounded theories against mRNA vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic [1]. Their words of alternative wisdom act as the thesis underpinning Lugavere’s approach to combatting his mother’s dementia, and more broadly as an advertisement for his diet philosophy.

Provocative ideas shouldn’t exactly be verboten, but the film makes no attempt to interrogate these divisive figures’ claims or even acknowledge that they are controversial at all; for example, the claim by one commentator that the pseudoscientific practice of acupuncture is an effective way to protect the brain goes entirely unchallenged. After the umpteenth ‘expert’ shows up to proselytise their ideas, one can’t help but feel that the film has lost sight of the more compelling, human story at its heart.

When we do return to the delightful Kathy, it’s a great relief. The rapport between mother and son is one many will identify with, and even those lucky enough to be untouched by dementia in their lives will recognise their enduring love and humour in the face of suffering. The day-in-the-life sequences are shot using a charming handheld photography that acts as a continuation of the ‘80s camcorder videos dotted throughout the film. New York looks radiant as Kathy and her son wander its streets, recalling a version of the city that doesn’t exist anymore and musing on the same questions of life, love and the march of time that consume us all. Were this the entirety of the film’s substance, you’d be reading a far more effusive review.

As things are, though, the moving story of Kathy’s battle with illness isn’t enough to overlook the indulgence and disingenuousness that characterises so much of Little Empty Boxes. There’s a germ of a great documentary here, but it’s sullied by the ulterior motives of its own director, who fails to exercise his due diligence as a journalist and artist. And yet, Lugavere will surely gain new acolytes as a result of this film’s release, which is, one suspects, its raison d’être.

Little Empty Boxes will open theatrically in New York on April 19 and in LA on April 26, 2024.

[1] The press office informed us that the interviewees, including Steven Gundry, were interviewed for the project around 2016 prior to any claims made in 2020.

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