Editor’s Note: Tickled opened in limited theatrical release June 17, 2016.
When New Zealand journalist David Farrier stumbled across a strange little sport known as Competitive Endurance Tickling, he thought he’d found the perfect topic for his pop-culture news segment. When he contacted the publicity department at Jane O’Brien Media about their hosted tickling events, however, he was shocked at the response. A spokesperson told him they would not allow David to report on their events because the sport was “exclusively heterosexual,” and David, who had recently gone public as bisexual, was too “immoral” to be associated with them in any way.
It’s obvious that the people involved in all this are up to something more sinister, though what that is remains frustratingly unclear.
So opens Tickled, Farrier’s directorial debut, co-directed with his colleague Dylan Reeve. Within moments, we’re seeing Farrier and Reeve navigate personal and legal threats from shadowy characters in cheap suits, and it’s hard to understand why, given that these tickling events — all featuring men between the ages of 18 and 25, and all posted to the internet — are clearly just fetish videos, and relatively tame ones at that. Soon it’s obvious that the people involved in all this are up to something more sinister, though what that is remains frustratingly unclear.
Much of the lack of clarity is due to ham-handed writing and editing, as well as some implied moralizing of the tabloid variety. Farrier makes his living interviewing quirky folks for those segments on news shows which are touted as humorous, even heartwarming, but which in reality often cater to the kind of person who likes to laugh at “freaks.” Farrier and Reeve approached tickle competitions as freakish, which is fair enough, I suppose, but they also approached the whole thing as quickie, disposable entertainment. Their early online posts about the topic went viral one day, becoming the funny thing everyone retweeted as they sipped their coffee, the anecdote morning zoo hosts related at the top of the hour, then were completely forgotten by lunchtime.
That all goes a long way toward explaining why the film just skims the surface of what is obviously a fascinating subject, even without the sinister Jane O’Brien Media situation. A brief stop at the office of another tickle video producer is shown almost as an afterthought, as though the filmmakers forgot that tickling was a well-known fetish. And if you’re waiting for discussion about tickle torture itself, you’ll be waiting forever; no one involved in Tickled seems to have done even cursory research on tickle torture, which turns out to be quite the hot topic online.
It’s a story that takes us back to the early days of the internet, the years of puka shell necklaces, floppy surfer hair and a constant stream of CDs promising us 30 days free on AOL.
Seconds into the first clip of the alleged tickle competitions and you know there’s something more than silly kink going on, but it seems likely that the filmmakers didn’t realize that until they got their first nastygram from Jane O’Brien Media. They’re perpetually behind the audience — at one point, they inform us in voiceover that they’ve decided to make a documentary, which we already know, because we are watching it. They’re also quite naïve. It may be a hook to keep the discoveries fresh, or it may be real; the adorable touristy tie-dye tee Farrier wears his first day in Florida suggests the latter.
That’s not to say there are no surprises here, because there are, even for those with some advance knowledge of the completely bonkers backstory. It’s a story that takes us back to the early days of the internet, the years of puka shell necklaces, floppy surfer hair and a constant stream of CDs promising us 30 days free on AOL. If you spent most of the 1990s on AOL or Usenet, it’s likely you’ve heard of one of the main players here, but you probably had no clue as to the scale of the situation, or the pure, unadulterated maliciousness behind it. As for the why of it all, there is none presented in the film, and not for any philosophical or humanist reasons, but because no one seems to have thought that far ahead. Tickled provides plenty of astonishing new information, yet feels like an unfinished documentary, one that ends just as it was finally getting started.
Tickled begins as a look at the oddball sport of competitive tickling, and quickly becomes an investigation into the shady characters behind thousands of tickling videos online. Despite plenty of astonishing revelations, Tickled feels like an unfinished documentary, one that ends just as it was finally getting started.