(New Zealand, 89 min.)
Dir. David Farrier and Dylan Reeve
Tickled leaves one feeling soiled. That statement, somehow, is a compliment. Directors David Farrier and Dylan Reeve convey with expert ease the dirtiness behind the eye-opening deception at the core of this documentary. The kinky side of tickling isn’t nearly as sleazy as the meticulous case of fraud and harassment the directors uncover as they stumble down a rabbit hole of fetishistic foul play. If a few fingers to the ribs invite a giggle, then Tickled encourages a deep, dark, and perverse belly laugh.
The descent into dirty secrets begins with an innocent bit of curiosity as Farrier, a journalist, discovers the world of competitive endurance tickling. It piques his curiosity which is only partially satisfied by a click of a mouse.
He emails a rep from Jane O’Brien Media, the company behind videos in which athletic young men are paid to be tickled, and receives a curt reply saying that the world of tickling is purely a straight man’s affair and that Farrier and his ‘queer ways’ had better keep out.
The problem, Farrier notes in voiceover, is that all the giggly guy-on-guy action in the videos seems pretty gay. At that point, consider his curiosity and journalistic inquisitiveness doubly piqued.
Curioser and curioser Tickled gets as Farrier and Reeve follow the trail that Jane O’Brien Media and a nasty emailer leave behind. Nothing adds up, but threats of legal action find their way to Farrier’s inbox when he starts asking questions. Reps from the league of tickling gentlemen and Jane O’Brien Media even fly to New Zealand with hopes of cooling the filmmakers’ interest in the story. The reps, almost bi-polar in their openness to Farrier when they realise the cameras are rolling, only add fuel to the fire when it becomes clear that they, too, have no familiarity with the employer who is sending the harassing emails.
This strange mystery becomes more peculiar by the minute. The presence of the cameras complicates matters as the doc shows how savagely subjects shut themselves off from the world when a recording device could make their private matters public. This element adds a deliciously sordid dynamic to Tickled as the story eventually spawns into an outrageous con in which many college-age men find themselves victimised by an online predator who posts videos of their tickling episodes on the Internet.
The footage appears to be a kind of semi-clothed S&M Internet porn as boys contort and howl with sadistic pleasure as an orgy of men tickle them at their benefactor’s behest. The scandal has the ripple effect of leaked sex tapes as the vindictive women behind the tickling films grasp the uneasiness with which the public views fetishistic inclinations even if the men in the videos keep themselves fully clothed. These men are mostly burly jocks and college athletes, so emasculating them in the public eye has its consequences.
The filmmakers investigate the ticklish scenario with the pace, atmosphere, and intrigue of a thriller. They handle the doc’s salacious subject matter with just the right tone of playful nosiness. The darkly funny air of journalistic snooping balances the awkwardness of the material and makes one vulnerable to the unexpected reveals that come one after another. The humorous tone invites the peeling back of private titillations that film’s subjects would rather keep out of view. If Tickled initially disappoints with its abrupt cut-off that halts the investigation without resolution, Farrier and Reeve leave the audience with an open-ended film that stresses the perverted power dynamic that keeps the mysterious puppeteer on the top and his ticklish victims on the bottom.
Farrier and Reeve encounter a true cyber bully who seduces vulnerable people through the anonymity of the Internet. The doc illustrates the danger in trusting online profiles and chatroom conversations, no matter how detailed or convincing they may be, as the tickling ring’s elaborate and surprisingly voracious appetite consumes numerous victims. The web of Tickled fascinates not so much for the oddity of folks getting their jollies off on laughter and tickles, but for the perverse power dynamic the filmmakers expose behind the online predator. The real fetish that Tickled exposes is one of power, authority, and control.