Take Care of Maya is an infuriating documentary on the wrenching case of Maya Kowalski with no easy answers. Take Care of Maya premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival and it will start streaming on Netflix on Monday, 19 June 2023.
Maya Kowalski, a once-vibrant Florida youngster, began exhibiting a troubling array of diseases when she was 10 years old: Her feet began to spasm and curl inward, she couldn’t stop coughing, headaches nearly rendered her immobile, and sores formed on her limbs. Her adoring parents, Jack and Beata, were desperate for a diagnosis rather than a treatment for their adored baby. It was yet another obstacle for Beata, a Polish immigrant and nurse noted for her forthright demeanour, and yet another medical puzzle to solve.
What happened over the next few years was a nightmare that even Beata, who was always prepared, couldn’t have predicted, a tangled story with a devastating — and entirely unfinished — conclusion that should frighten everyone. In “Take Care of Maya,” a painful and ultimately incomplete look at an astonishing true story, first-time feature filmmaker Henry Roosevelt seeks to untangle what happened to the Kowalskis (and, as the film finally contends, what has happened to many other American families).
If the colours of this story sound familiar — sick youngster, dedicated mom, a family tale with unexpectedly broad consequences — it’s possible you’ve already read Dyan Neary’s great 2022 article in The Cut or one of Daphne Chen’s pieces from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and know how this story ends. And, while Roosevelt does not attempt to disguise the tragedy that dominates the documentary’s last act, the filmmaker’s efforts to unspool his film in a linear method, all the better to strive to locate the truth in a complex story, are a good option.
The different views Roosevelt switches between while delivering the story are less effective. What happened to Maya and Beata has (and will likely continue to) spark a slew of debates, ranging from Maya’s eventual diagnosis and the treatment the Kowalskis pursued to the actions of a local hospital and the Pinellas County child-protection team, but Roosevelt’s film vacillates between taking a firm stance on any of the issues at hand.
Not that it’s necessary for a documentary, where objectivity usually reigns supreme, but Roosevelt tries to have it both ways, delving deep into the Kowalskis’ lives while also including surveillance footage from Maya’s many hospital stays, which appears to slyly contradict the family’s own experience. That means viewers must draw their own judgements, but “Take Care of Maya” doesn’t give them nearly enough information to do so. What it does provide is painful and furious documentation of a peculiar catastrophe that appears destined to never provide complete closure for anyone involved.
The facts, as elusive as that phrase may be in this case, are as follows, as elegantly spelled forth in Roosevelt’s film: Few doctors could specify a diagnosis for Maya’s problems once she began experiencing them, until Dr. Anthony Kirkpatrick presented one that included a contentious “cure.” Kirkpatrick claimed Maya had CRPS (“complex regional pain syndrome”), a rare form of chronic pain that primarily affects young girls and is frequently misinterpreted to the point of mockery, much like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Kirkpatrick began treating Maya with ketamine, eventually concluding with a dose strong enough to throw her into a five-day coma.
Maya felt better when she awoke, until she didn’t. Months after her coma, Beata and Jack took her to a nearby hospital for treatment, where the various doctors, nurses, and social workers eventually concluded that Maya was not sick and that the meticulous and direct Beata was the one who was ill, suffering from Munchausen syndrome by proxy (hello, “The Act”). Maya languished in the hospital for nearly three months, while her insurance company was ironically billed for her CRPS therapy, while her family, particularly Beata, was kept away from her and the state of Florida ruthlessly investigated her.
Roosevelt has a variety of material to work with in telling this narrative, thanks to Beata’s thorough notes and audio recordings, as well as a number of interviews with various talking heads and even deposition material from the subsequent lawsuits, which are skin-crawling in at least five ways. “Take Care of Maya” feels almost too personal at moments, as Roosevelt follows the Kowalskis through some of their darkest days, diving into a damaged family and only showing us the pieces.
That sense of an incomplete story, of answers we may never fully understand, is central to the Kowalskis’ story, but Roosevelt’s film is unable to reconcile it with the limits and demands of a feature picture. As one story comes to an end, others begin to spiral outward, none of them able to reach any feeling of closure or completion, only more anguish and no solution.