SXSW Film Review: Caterpillar

Impressionistic documentary evokes the trauma of beauty standards

It’s easy to be mislead, in the best possible way, by Caterpillar, a fascinating documentary written and directed by Liza Mandelup - I know for a fact that more than one viewer was convinced for a good, long time they were watching a low-budget feature rather than a doc.

But no, this is the true story of a deeply unhappy fellow named Raymond David Taylor, a biracial, gay man living in Miami. David struggles with confidence and self-esteem. He has a complicated relationship with his mother, who had her own struggles. She seems tolerant of his sexuality but is critical of his insecurities. David is a man longing for change: “Changing me will change my outlook on life,” he says, and we are pulling for him.

He discovers it in a company called BrightOcular, which offers a procedure that changes the color of the patient’s eyes by inserting an artificial iris. This company, which advertises on YouTube and whose procedures are not FDA-approved, light up something in David - he decides he wants his brown eyes to become “frost.”

Something like this should cost a fortune, right? Nope. The procedure is free as long as the company is allowed to use David’s image to create promotional materials.

This probably should have been a red flag, but David clearly needs… something to change in his life. He heads from Miami to India for the procedure.

Caterpillar is a subtle, impressionistic meditation on beauty standards and the reasons why people seek to change their bodies. When David arrives in India, he meets others looking to get the procedure: an South Asian woman living in the UK, a Jamaican woman, and two men. We learn a little bit about each, but David is the POV character.

Mandelup seems to have gotten remarkable access both to David (she sought out people looking to get the procedure after learning about it). In a stunning own-goal on the part of the company, she gets similar access to BrightOculus. The viewer sees a surgeon involved with the procedure advise several patients *against* it, then they see three surgeries being done *at the same time.* Which has the sort of result you might expect.

Mandelup follows David for a spell after the surgery and he does feel better about himself (moving to New York certainly helped). But then things start to go south.

There really are moments when “Caterpillar’ feels like lo-fi science-fiction, until you remember William Gibson’s famous dictum: “The future is already here - it’s just not evenly distributed.” A more accurate version might be: “Cutting-edge technology is here - it’s just not being marketed to everyone.” BrightOcular seems like the very model of the fly-by-night 21st-century medical company: it’s snake oil updated for the internet age, aimed at vulnerable people. Racist beauty standards being what they are, it isn’t terribly surprising that the vast majority of people Caterpillar follows and encounters are non-white, from the patients to the surgeons.

A smart, sympathetic character study with an expected style, Caterpillar examines the increasingly complicated nexus of self-esteem, marketing, body modification and technology. The movie operates on a global scale but keeps things deeply human.


Visions, World Premiere

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