The filmmaker Liza Mandelup, whose 2019 documentary “Jawline” explored the rise and fall of a teen social media star, has a fascination with how people see themselves. That’s a valuable skill for any filmmaker, but it makes Mandelup’s particular brand of disquieting non-fiction film feel especially penetrating in the internet era. Her sophomore feature, “Caterpillar,” begins as an alluring portrait of a single subject and morphs into a surreal medical thriller about a mysterious company offering experimental cosmetic procedures. As in “Jawline,” “Caterpillar” holds a cunning mirror up to technology’s effect on everyday life, where we are bombarded with images of ourselves whether we like it or not.
Anchored by a single compelling figure, “Caterpillar” follows David Taylor, a middle-aged gay man in desperate pursuit of a risky treatment to change his eye color from brown to blue-gray. David exudes vulnerability onscreen, despite his best efforts to mask his sweet sensitivity with masculine bravado. He lights up with childlike excitement at the thought of having fresh eyes, a change he imagines will make him a new and happier person. He shares briefly about the painful childhood experience of witnessing lighter-skinned family members be treated more favorably, but that is the only discussion of race in the film. (None of the subjects seeking out the procedure are white.)
Through a series of impassioned YouTube testimonials, David discovers a company with the ominous name of BrightOcular, which promises a quick and easy way to permanently change one’s eye color. Because the procedure is not FDA-approved, the company has various clinics outside the U.S. with a primary hub in India. David is elated when his request for a complimentary treatment in exchange for a testimonial is approved, and quickly makes plans to travel to India.
Before leaving, he shares his travel plans with his mother while tenderly styling her hair. Like most mothers, she tries to dissuade him from the unnecessary surgery, telling him how handsome he is. Her loving rant soon devolves, however, into her thoughts on David’s sexuality, and she feels a need to state that she would not approve if he wanted breast implants. Though David hasn’t mentioned anything about gender identity, his gentle sobbing in the back of the frame indicates the topic is tender. When she hears his cries, she looks shocked, and asks, “Was I not supposed to say that?”
From this deeply personal foundation, the film drops onto the bustling streets of Delhi, where David proudly models his salmon pink kurta in preparation for his new life. Amazingly, Mandelup and her crew obtained full access to BrightOcular’s facilities and intake process, even filming inside the operating room. Within the cramped facility, David meets and befriends his fellow patients, all of whom share his giddy enthusiasm for the procedure. When things go awry in ways both subtle and blatant, they are quickly thrust into a stressful bond. “Love you guys,” David says as they break for the day.
Though David’s procedure is a mix-up with the color, he returns home to the U.S. elated with his new eyes. “I’m not who I was before, and I’m 10 times better now,” he says. He gains the confidence to move back to New York City, where he calls up childhood friends, eager to show off his new look. Multiple times, people call out to compliment his eyes, and he walks away with a confident bounce. His excitement is so pure and genuine, it’s impossible to quiet the doubts when he says things like, “It’s a brand new me, and I’m just starting all over.”
If it sounds too good to be true, it is, and the film’s final act sees David coming to terms with the fact that the implants cannot be permanent if he wants to keep his eyesight. He spends the rest of the film connecting with others in his position and eventually consents to getting them removed, after some resistance. Though he’s reluctant and disappointed, his new lease on life seems to have given him the momentum to make the change he needed to be happy. His new home in New York and his new friends remain, even without his blue-gray eyes.
With somewhat mixed results, “Caterpillar” skirts the line between an enigmatic portrait of David and a tense journalistic thriller about a dangerous off-market procedure. It raises more questions than it answers, and though the topic is certainly unique, it follows a fairly simple narrative. While David himself is a sweetly engaging narrator, the film might have been more profound had he been pushed to slightly deeper self-reflection. Perhaps the eyes aren’t the window to the soul after all.
“Caterpillar” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.