‘Little Empty Boxes’ Review: Dementia Documentary Can’t Escape the Impossibility of Treating a Disease with No Easy Answers

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At one point in “Little Empty Boxes,” Kathy Lugavere looks into the camera and struggles to find the words to describe her feelings about dementia. Her case is severe enough to rob her of independence, but new enough that she could still remember what life was like before it hit. After fruitlessly searching for a metaphor, she ends up saying that all of her boxes used to be full, but now they’re empty. When asked what she meant by that, she declines to elaborate.

The vague yet haunting imagery creates a fitting title for Max Lugavere’s new documentary, which follows the nutrition influencer as he struggles to manage his mother’s simultaneous battles with dementia and Parkinson’s Disease. Despite building a thriving career as an anti-carb crusader in Los Angeles, America’s most fitness-obsessed city by a considerable margin, Max began to recognize signs of his mother’s cognitive decline in 2011 and moved back to New York City to care for her. Kathy was in her early sixties when the diseases hit, and should have had several more rich chapters of life ahead of her. But once it became clear that would not be the case, Max filmed many of his conversations with his declining mother as he looked to understand the condition that was taking her away from him.

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Those raw discussions between Max and Kathy — which see her moods swinging between anger, sadness, gallows humor, and occasional peace — provide the foundation for “Little Empty Boxes.” But the film soon pivots toward a broader investigation into dementia as Max becomes determined to understand the science behind the disease. He throws himself into the project with the kind of rigor you might expect from a bestselling author who hosts a podcast about brain health called “The Genius Life.” He interviews researchers from top medical institutions who walk viewers through diagrams about broken neural pathways and nutrition experts who trace recent spikes in the disease to America’s increased consumption of processed sugars. The documentary splits its focus between the personal and the universal, as Max seeks broad answers about the disease while simultaneously managing the day-to-day challenges of his own mother’s care.

Viewers will have to form their own opinions about the nutritional advice offered in the film, as Max soon shifts his focus to the topic that made him a notable guest on shows like “The Joe Rogan Experience” and “Dr. Oz”: his belief that meats and fats are unfairly demonized. Max and his interview subjects walk viewers through a series of what they see as damning nutritional trends from the 20th century. Paranoia about heart disease in the 1950s and ‘60s, due in part to Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack in the White House, led many consumers and food manufacturers to run away from foods deemed to be high in cholesterol. That had the unintended consequence of increasing the amount of carbohydrates Americans eat, which forces our brains to process amounts of sugar that are much larger than anything we’d encounter in nature. It also deprived us of many of the fats that give us brain power, leading Max to believe that many concerning trends about dementia are dietary in nature.

But just when it seems like Max’s cocktail of protein, exercise, and kimchi with every meal is making a difference in Kathy’s life, her condition takes a turn for the worse. The film’s most impressive revelation about dementia arises from Max’s failure to mitigate his mother’s symptoms. He seems to do everything right, but his valiant efforts to make his mom’s life easier seem feeble when pitted against the natural entropy that’s waiting for everyone who’s lucky enough to avoid dying young. The film’s determination to shed light on systemic causes of dementia is admirable, but the real takeaway of “Little Empty Boxes” is that caring for a parent in a state of serious decline is an impossible task at which everyone is technically destined to “fail.” All we can do is our best, and the last true challenge is making peace with the fact that it will never be good enough.

Grade: B-

An Abramorama release, “Little Empty Boxes” is now playing in select theaters in New York City. It expands to Los Angeles on Friday, April 26. The film goes to VOD on June 27.

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