Pervy, titillating and deeply disturbing, the one word you’d never use to describe the documentary “Tickled” is funny.
An expose of the Internet phenomenon of “Competitive Endurance Tickling,” it’s one of those “sports” you hear DJs talk about when they hit the “Can you believe THIS?” portion of their radio shows.
Which is kind of how New Zealand “lighter side” TV reporter David Farrier came to it. A guy famous for funny feature stories on the unusual, the trendy and the physical, he heard about this “sport” and sampled the Internet videos that capture it — young, good-looking men — athletes and actors and teenagers, a lot of them — are restrained, then gang-tickled for minutes and minutes on end.
Kinky. Funny. But, whatever floats your boat, right?
But Farrier’s efforts to get some information from the LA production company doing many of the videos leave him taken aback. He is threatened. There’s ugly name-calling from execs with “Jane O’Brien Media.” Farrier’s gay, and the nastiness includes “little gay Kiwi” slurs and is shockingly out of proportion considering his semi-innocent interest.
“If you want to stick your head in a blast furnace, do it.”
Lawsuits are launched, and Farrier receives letters from both the US and New Zealand law firms. The harassment is non-stop, all-consuming and explicit. Wow, he thinks. What’s going on here?
But the ticklers have under-estimated the features reporter. Farrier and co-director/videographer Dylan Reeve go to America and travel far down the rabbit hole of a “tickle empire” — encountering bullying, the ruined lives of some of the boyish men who took part in the videos and journalists who have tackled this story before.
They meet a less threatening, up-front and proud tickler and producer of tickling videos in Orlando, of all places. Richard Ivey gives insights about what’s erotic about these “games,” the sado-masochistic nature of what’s going on — “control.” The person Farrier and Reeve are after is someone who has gone off the deep end in that regard, a monster with legal acumen and deep pockets. No wonder many people have a fear of being tickled. It’s not that innocent.
It’s a mystery not unlike “Catfish,” a story that begins with one set of assumptions and leads deeper and deeper until the more obvious ones step to the fore. Like “Catfish,” it’s more about peeling the layers than the revelation that “Jane O’Brien” doesn’t exist.
Unlike “Catfish,” what the filmmakers have done is documentary journalism of a public service variety, journalism of a high order. They go on stake-outs, they confront people in the act, they dig through financials, court records, resumes and work histories. They interview victims.
“Tickled” is not a movie that lets you see how the meal is prepared — not totally, anyway. At some point, they stumble into a video shoot at Jane O’Brien Media, and then are beneficiaries of a vast data dump that points them in the right direction (basically solves the mystery). How they got these “breaks” is skipped over, perhaps to protect a source or two.
Reading between the lines, you quickly realize that being tickled isn’t the only thing one has to fear when asking questions the wealthy and well-lawyered don’t want answered. The helplessness one gets being pinned down and tickled, the chilling fear of that, nicely parallels the chill and fear of reporting a story powerful people don’t want reported, which Farrier shows us in this odd and shocking expose.
MPAA Rating:R for language
Cast: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, David Starr, Hal Karp,
Credits: Directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:31