Categorized as a documentary by the filmmakers and programmers of SXSW, Liza Mandelup’s Caterpillar has a lucid structure that feels like a loose, improvised sci-fi narrative exploring the extremes that subject Raymond “David” Taylor will go to stand out just as he’s about to turn 50. Going in cold, one might believe it to be a lo-fi mumblecore movie with occasional moments of cringe and perverse humor, but it supposedly happened. Rather than framing the film as a cautionary medical tale, it remains a grounded, sympathetic portrait of David and his quest for beauty. 

Queer and without a partner, he’s dancing in the dark, wishing for something more out of life, telling us “people don’t understand the struggle out here––I’m my own worst enemy.” Despite being a handsome guy who looks ten years younger than he is, David still longs to be light-skinned. While this is perhaps too difficult of an undertaking, he can change his eye color––after some internet research, he lands on the real BrightOcular process which uses an implant to do so.

Watching YouTube videos on the trend compels him to reach out to BrightOcular and asks to become a model for the company in exchange for the procedure. They agree and contact him to let him know the local medical tourism board will fund his travel to India for the procedure. His mother, who lives just down the road from him in Miami, can’t understand why he’d travel across the world to change his eye color. 

In India he’s placed in what feels like a hostel with other influencers and models who have agreed to be the face of BrightOcular’s marketing. They all have similar reasons for obtaining the procedure: the belief that “being seen” will increase their confidence. Something goes terribly wrong: BrightOcular accidentally installs the wrong implant due to a “packaging error” and the only recourse is swapping David’s implant with one already inserted into another influencer. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Directed by Mandelup, whose previous film Jawline explored an influencer’s obsessive quest for followers to escape a dead-end life in rural Tennessee, Caterpillar follows a similarly obsessed subject willing to go to unreal extremes to be seen. Director of Photography Benjamin Whatley and editor Alex O’Flinn have created a genre-defying picture, adopting the style of mumblecore. This allows for moments like the ones between David and his mother, which play out in long takes akin to a dark comedy about arrested development. If one entered the theater blind they would not know what to make of the film, which never quite announces itself as a documentary. 

Then again, a debate you might find yourself having in film studies is that every film is in some ways a documentary and a narrative can be superimposed. Every subject is performing at all times, even if they’ve become comfortable in front of the camera. Every film ultimately documents something. Caterpillar seems to prove the argument. It is a fascinating character study that at any time can devolve into a dark comedy, a medical horror film, or, ultimately a moving tale about the impossible quest for beauty and perfection.

Caterpillar premiered at SXSW 2023.

Grade: B

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