Written by Kristen Lopez
Tickling is a dangerous business; just ask the directing duo of David Farrier and Dylan Reeve whose documentary debut, Tickled proves just that. Tickled is a deliciously watchable mystery with the intrigue and guilty pleasure personality of a Law and Order: SVU/To Catch a Predator marathon. The story Farrier and Reeve set out to expose is so deliriously weird it makes up for any amateurishness in the directing duo’s presentation. Tickled is one of the year’s weirdest (and downright) best films of the year!
David Farrier is a New Zealand-based journalist who one day comes upon a site advertising “competitive endurance tickling.” Intrigued, he requests an interview with the company behind it, unleashing a torrent of homophobic and abusive emails from the company’s owner. Farrier decides to investigate the company further, leading to a series of bizarre twists and turns no one could have foreseen.
Like an extended Dateline segment or, as it’s more commonly compared to, Nev Schulman’s Catfish, Tickled takes an insane story so extraordinary that you anticipate Farrier and Reeve revealing they’ve pulled everyone’s leg. I mean, like Farrier says, this can’t all be because of tickling, right?
Farrier touts himself as a journalist whose “made a career looking at the weird and bizarre in life.” When he watches the first “auditions” for competitive endurance tickling (from here on referred to as CET) they’re laughably homoerotic as young male members of various “tickling leagues” straddle each other. When the company that promotes these contests, Jane O’Brien Media, responds to Farrier’s interview requests by bringing up his sexuality, it’s understandably weird. But when the emails keep coming, filled with threats of lawsuits and, later, violence, one starts to wonder if someone doth protest too much?
To go any further risks spoiling the magical fun within Tickled. As with any good expose, Farrier comes up with several means of capturing video and audio of the shadowy figures he’s dealing with – the good ‘ole coffee cup camera drops in for a bit. Because the interviews with Jane O’Brien’s legal representatives and, ultimately, the real face of the company, are unscripted it’s understandable that Farrier is thrown off-track, unable to come up with follow-up questions in the moment. These are being cited as detriments against the film, but do more to show Farrier as a man lured into a story he never anticipated. It is Farrier’s somewhat manipulative tricks to make us feel this is playing out in real time that are more noticeable, like sitting in front of a computer as he discusses looking at something online or emailing someone.
What starts out as an expose on secret tickling leagues turns into a dark, grimy tale of “power, control and harassment” that goes from hilarious to horrifying in 90-minutes. The deeper Farrier digs into these tickling videos, he starts encountering a string of broken men affected by them. T.J. Gretzner’s tickling video ended up destroying his career and job prospects after he demanded the company respect his privacy and remove the video they posted without his consent, and his is only one story with the implication others have similar tales but are too terrified to talk. Farrier and Reeve become the victims of Mob-like intimidation, with supposed legal representatives for the company using words like “target,” “ugly” before bringing up Reeve’s family and saying “he’ll be dealt with accordingly.” Did these two stumble on to the Pentagon Papers of tickling?
In Farrier’s cross-country exploration of those affected by Jane O’Brien Media and the “competitive tickling circuit,” he looks at the underground world of erotic tickling, one of the more outrageous digressions that I’m unsure was insanely fun to see or remarkably disturbing. The look on Farrier’s face as he watches a shirtless, gyrating man being tickled in slow motion says so much. Farrier also travels to Muskegon, Minnesota, one of several locations, presumably world-wide, where competitive ticklers are recruited and where the residents poor status is exploited for the shadowy Jane O’Brien Media owners sick ends.
Strip away the bleak story of power and corruption within and you still have a documentary showing how utterly horrifying tickling itself is. The laughter only sustains for so long before the pain and panic arises. Watching Tickled will leave you giggling and feeling the sensation, but sticks with you far longer for the deep terror it brings up, and much like the laughter wafting through the air vents of a tickling audience, it’ll be impossible to get out of your brain.