SXSW 2023 Review: There’s Far More Than Meets the Eye in Liza Mandelup’s “Caterpillar”

David Taylor feels like a favor is being done for him at the start of “Caterpillar,” sending out what seems like a message in a bottle after seeing video testimonials online for a company called BrightOcular, which claims they can change the pigment of a person’s eyes. His father who he hardly knew as a child had green eyes and in his bid to change how he sees himself, he writes a far more emotional letter than anyone could expect to a faceless company about how he was made to feel inferior growing up gay and biracial in Miami, among other real or perceived challenges. His mother Carmen always thought he was a beautiful boy, so much so she worried that he might bring around the wrong people, but as he nears 50 and starting to count his regrets, David is eager for a change and short of the cash to pay for such a surgery, he hopes BrightOcular might consider making him one of their success stories.

David couldn’t predict what a compelling case he could make, surprised to not only get a response from BrightOcular, but one that promised to cover all expenses for his surgery in India as long as he would repeat his story for a YouTube video and other promotional considerations, and it’s safe to assume that it’s an offer that’s too good to be true. Then again, there’s a lot that seems unbelievable that actually isn’t in director Liza Mandelup’s jaw-dropping second feature, which follows David halfway around the world and back to the States again as he endures the ill-advised procedure — even the doctor charged with performing it says he wouldn’t risk the potential side effects — along with a host of others, all of whom seem to share traumatic pasts that no amount of cosmetic surgery is bound to ease.

“Caterpillar” is arresting from its very first shot, drawing towards David in a club where he’s losing himself in the music, but pulls back to reveal he’s bobbing up and down in place restlessly, surrounded by men in far less clothing than he is in a place where he should be losing his inhibitions. Like Mandelup’s previous film “Jawline,” which followed a social media influencer through the meat grinder of building a global following from a rural community, the desire to shake things up is understandable, but the path to get there is cringe-inducing when the needle that goes into his irises would appear to be a far less painful prospect than having to justify himself to his mother, who dredges up other poor decisions he’s made in the past, and the nagging feeling he’s made a mistake once there are complications.

David has more than enough reason to be alarmed once he gets to India, blinded by his excitement to the fact that BrightOcular farms out their surgeries and keeps their management anonymous and he becomes only truly concerned after the fact that he didn’t get his own operating room with a doctor doing three surgeries at a time. But the aftermath where the fallout from the surgery becomes only one more unresolved issue in his life that there’s no quick fix for and Mandelup’s insistence to sticking with the story to its end pays considerable dividends. Besides exposing the elective surgical equivalent of a ponzi scheme with a shocking amount of access to BrightOcular’s clinic, “Caterpillar” impressively lays bare the bundle of nerves that is David, who in approaching the half-century mark likely believes he’s done all the soul searching he possibly can for answers to what ails him and doesn’t have much more luck as he looks elsewhere. A silky synth score from Palmbomen II underlines its main subject’s illusions for himself in a world where he could be more accepted while cinematographer Benjamin Whatley’s considerate framing often holds up the lonelier reality and while you might not be entirely convinced what you’re peering into is a chrysalis when Ray faces problems he may never be able to escape, “Caterpillar” is further proof that the nonfiction work Mandelup is doing is game changing.

“Caterpillar” will screen at SXSW on March 16th at 5:30 pm at the Alamo Lamar B.