If it’s true that truth is stranger than fiction, then what are we to make of the new documentary Tickled?
Ostensibly the story of a New Zealand reporter who wants to know more about the world of Competitive Endurance Tickling (yes, that’s really a thing), this documentary takes viewers on an unforgettable journey down a rabbit hole so twisty they’ll never see the bottom coming.
Without spoiling anything, here’s the gist: David Farrier is one of those lighter-side TV personalities who is always reporting on the weird and wacky side of life. So when he comes across videos featuring the sport of “competitive endurance tickling,” he figures he’s found his next great story. In the world of CET, a young jock is held down — shackled, actually — and, yes, tickled by one, two, or three other men. Why do they do this, other than, apparently, for significant financial gain? Who wants to watch this? And who is behind it all?
Farrier reaches out to “Jane O’Brien Media,” the organization supposedly behind CET, but his initial inquiries are met by increasingly hostile homophobic slurs and orders to cease and desist. (Despite its obvious homoeroticism, CET is decidedly heterosexual, he’s told.) Then three representatives of the company show up in New Zealand and try to stop him. So naturally, Farrier suspects there’s something more to the story, and thus begins the documentary.
Farrier and his filmmaking partner, Dylan Reeve, travel from New Zealand to Los Angeles to Orlando to Muskegon, Mich., and finally, to New York in pursuit of answers. And what starts out as an amusing story of online fetishism quickly turns into a story of money, power, and cyberbullying that’s no laughing matter.
That’s all you’re gonna get from me … except that I’ll say what makes Tickled so compelling is watching Farrier and Reeve as they follow their curiosity, listening in disbelief to stories from former Jane O’Brien associates and CET participants, and dodging multiple legal threats along the way. The film switches back and forth between hidden-camera stakeouts, sit-down interviews, and good ole dogged journalism. And throughout, Farrier’s shocked reactions mirror those of the audience.
Every piece of the puzzle reveals more and more mysteries, and despite the film’s increasing queasiness, you, like, Farrier and Reeve, will keep wanting to know more. Tickled tells such a bizarre story that you may even have a hard time believing it’s real.
Speaking of which, to the best of my memory, the only film that comes close to this level of weirdness is Catfish, the 2010 documentary in which Nev Schulman realizes his online crush isn’t the girl he thinks she is. That film’s twists were so unbelievable that many viewers literally had a hard time believing them. Farrier and Reeve swear everything in Tickled is real. But part of me hopes it’s not.
This is another in the line of films that brings to light the serious damage online anonymity can cause, and it should make you more skeptical of anything you come across that looks remotely suspect — and question just how much of your private life you want to make publicly available.
(The movie creeped me out so much that I actually thought twice — three times, even — before publishing this review. No joke. And while I’m curious to see some of these websites for myself, I will not be Googling any of the stuff mentioned in the film, either.)
If I had one quibble, it’s that Tickled ends rather abruptly. But like real life, the story goes on. And if you see the movie, this is one story you’ll be talking about for a long time to come.
I’m giving Tickled a B+