2016, R, 92 min. Directed by David Farrier, Dylan Reeve.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., July 8, 2016
You know the drill. What starts off as an intriguing documentary about a strange and interesting topic suddenly takes a crazy turn and becomes, in the parlance of our times, a tale in which “you’ll never believe what happens next!” Such is the case with Tickled, a hot doc coming off a buzzy festival run, which follows in the footsteps of Catfish, The Imposter, and Capturing the Friedmans: films seemingly about something over here that suddenly become films about something over there, the cinematic equivalent to those spinning carnival rides where the floor suddenly drops away. With Tickled, it begins with a potentially amusing news story and ends with a chronicle of many lives ruined.
David Farrier is a journalist out of New Zealand whose beat is the lighter side of life, human-interest stories profiling the weird and eccentric that close the local news show. Ever delving into the obscure corners of the internet, he comes across a video depicting “competitive endurance tickling,” and his interest is piqued. But when he reaches out to the company producing the videos, Jane O’Brien Media, he is immediately inundated with a barrage of increasingly hostile and vitriolic responses, warning him to drop his inquiry and viciously disparaging his homosexual lifestyle (Farrier is openly gay). Stunned by the increasingly unhinged missives he is constantly receiving, Farrier teams up with co-director Dylan Reeve, and the two spelunk down into a rabbit hole of fetish, coercion, exploitation of the working class, blackmail, and most importantly, online bullying. The tickling videos themselves (ripped young men endlessly tickling other ripped, constrained young men) are unmistakably homoerotic, a mild form of bondage and control, a precursor to the whips and ball-gags, perhaps. But the reps of Jane O’Brien vehemently refute this, instead offering up excuses about it being an actual competitive sport and research for use in military interrogation, among other lame justifications. They throw menacing legal actions at the filmmaking duo at every turn, and Farrier and Reeve have a tough time getting people to talk. But as it goes, truth will out, and eventually they doggedly get to the heart of the story.
It is a David and Goliath story to be sure, one in which Goliath has deep pockets and a seemingly endless score to settle, a score that has caused harm to countless numbers of people. But what lingers at the end of this quest for justice is this: What makes a bully? The answer in this story is, not surprisingly, being bullied yourself. So if you publicly out a bully who is a bully because they were bullied all their life, are you also the bully? Tickled doesn’t quite answer all of the questions it brings up, and there’s a nagging feeling that there is much more to this story than portrayed (despite the laborious patience on the filmmakers’ part), but it is a fascinating and disturbing descent into a particular online underworld that continues to confirm that the internet is a vast and mysterious place. I’m clearing my search history now.