In one of Tickled’s many memorable sequences, directors David Farrier and Dylan Reeve visit the Florida studio of a tickling bondage video producer. They watch this man - an everyday, pleasant person who just so happens to get off on tickling - as he claps a subject in irons and tickles him on camera. Conservative audiences find this kind of Diet Coke weirdness shocking, and indeed, a significant portion of my cinema audience gasped at the gentle naughtiness of the concept.
For vanilla audiences and the sexually woke alike, however, Tickled is far more than a dive into a (frankly, fairly tame) fetish subculture. It’s an honest-to-god investigative doc and a gripping conspiracy thriller whose story will surprise audiences as much as it did its directors.
Tickled opens where its production began: with co-director and quasi-host David Farrier, a New Zealand TV journalist known for covering unusual and left-of-centre subjects, stumbling upon a website inviting young men to fly to Los Angeles, all expenses paid, to take part in a filmed sport called “Competitive Endurance Tickling.” Obviously, this kind of opportunity demanded an interview request, but the response, filled with homophobic comments (Farrier is bisexual) and hostility, incited Farrier to push further.
To try to better understand their subject, Farrier and Reeve explore the world of tickle fetishists, producing the kind of lighthearted material Farrier has been presenting on TV for years. All of that stuff is fine, and the filmmakers take great pains to stress that their film is not a joke at the expense of the fetish community. And it’s not. It’s when the pair attempt to investigate Competitive Endurance Tickling itself that the film kicks into a completely different gear and cements its place as one of the most surprising films of 2016.
I don’t want to spoil the movie's twists, because like any conspiracy flick, piecing together the clues is half the fun. Suffice it to say that Tickled tackles issues and events far stranger than its outward appearance would suggest. Through interviews with CET participants, filmmakers, journalists, family members, and lawyers, Farrier and Reeve paint a picture of a predatory network that preys upon the financially and emotionally vulnerable. Contradictions abound, not in the storytelling so much as in the story itself, as the colourful, laughter-filled videos drop away to reveal a dark web of abuse, character assassination, legal threats, gaslighting, and stalking - all fueled by seemingly endless money - that feels drawn from the darkest recesses of Martin Scorsese’s subconscious.
As the rabbit hole deepens, and Farrier and Reeve discover just to what abusive lengths their antagonists will go to pop a boner, the film transforms from a light-hearted curiosity doc into a paranoid hunt for the truth. Dominic Fryer’s chilly cinematography, Simon Coldrick’s feverish editing, and Rodi Kirk’s increasingly unnerving score combine to create an entirely unexpected atmosphere of dread and suspense. What could easily have been an endless succession of hidden-camera footage and YouTube clips (both of which still show up in abundance) is instead confident in craft and controlled in tone.
Inevitably, the filmmakers get drawn into their subject even as they investigate it. The level of push-back they receive - from an organisation that repeatedly trumpets how legit and non-threatening it is - gets to the point where we even fear for their safety. Our quietly charming, plucky heroes feel like true underdogs next to the seemingly all-powerful forces they document. That’s either an illustration of the story’s potency or a triumph of filmmaking; either way, it makes for one electric thrill ride of a doc. There’s even a car chase! It’s incredible.
Tickled was produced almost entirely within a period of - at least within the pop culture world - increased public scrutiny on internet harassment and online bullying. Comparisons between recent public instances of online abuse and those seen in Tickled are easy to make. But where phenomena like GamerGate constituted hundreds of trolls and online terrorists, Tickled’s story ultimately boils down to an astonishingly contained source.
Though most of the film is spent simply tracking its slippery subject down, we get a few tantalising glimpses at the mentality behind the tickling and the harassment. It’s hard not to imagine a personal history for such a weird boogeyman, and the film’s final sequences manage to elicit genuine empathy - as surprising an audience response as the horror that precedes it. All bad guys have reasons for doing what they do, and Tickled’s bad guy is as fascinating as any. Fascinating and horrible.
What really proves Tickled’s thesis, though, is the nastiness that has befallen its directors in the process of making the film. Stepping beyond the text a little, Farrier and Reeve have themselves become subjects of harassment by their subjects, both online and in legal channels. Even writing about the film is enough to merit anything from an angry tweet to legal threats. Stories exist of festival screenings interrupted by private investigators bearing hidden cameras. A truther site has sprung up attacking the filmmakers, containing exactly the obsessive, childish name-calling that the film exposes in its subjects. And it continues to escalate: Reeve saw his Q&A screening in Los Angeles last weekend hijacked by multiple subjects of the film, monologuing that he needed to “lawyer up.” Though a full sequel might be tricky, the story of Tickled isn’t over by a long shot.
Tickled is a startling film telling a profoundly strange and chilling story. Its subject material isn't world-changing stuff, but in its secluded corner of weirdness, it finds new takes on power, cruelty, and inequality most people will not have considered. The film’s in limited release right now - make it your mission to seek it out.
(Full disclosure: Andrew backed Tickled on Kickstarter and directed David Farrier in Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws.)