Published on July 15th, 2016 | by Dan Nicholls0
The new documentary Tickled, about adult tickling competitions of all things, may seem like an innocuous idea, until some more sinister underbellies are entertainingly revealed.
It’s impossible to talk about the new documentary Tickled, playing in many cities across the country as of this Friday, without mentioning the odd, strange case of the phenomenon of ‘competitive endurance tickling’ that serves as the catalyst for the story. But like the little scratch at the back of your throat when you know you’re about to be beaten down by a cold, tickling, as it pertains to this documentary, is merely the tip of the iceberg. It sounds weird to say but Tickled is much more than its easy and quirky logline.
The film, as all good documentaries do, becomes a lot deeper, a lot more meaningful, and a lot more devastating than its humble origins would hint at. By the film’s end you will find some sort of a happy ending and some sort of emotional retribution for the many social atrocities you’ve heard about and borne witness to. A couple’s giggles and playful teasing may seem innocuous enough, but there’s a darker force pulling strings behind the tickling scene with the venomous indifference of a spoiled, moody child. In the end, the worldwide man-on-man tickling action is the least odd thing about this whole story.
David Farrier is a mild-mannered New Zealand journalist who, as we learn in the beginning of the movie, specializes in covering stories that are found off the beaten journalistic path. His interest is piqued — as one’s would be, naturally – after learning of an online endurance tickling competition. There are no skills or knowledge necessary here – competitors must simply remain shackled and allow groups of other young men to tickle them mercilessly for hours on camera. The astronomically sensitive-skinned viewers will know that this can be, in effect, a form of torture for some people. But there’s one person in particular who can’t get enough of it, who bankrolls the whole enterprise, and who gets very confrontational towards our co-director and humble narrator when a little bit of digging threatens to blow the roof off this whole ‘competition.’
What appears on the surface to ostensibly be about exploring another quirky corner of the human psyche quickly gives way to a far more interesting pursuit. Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reeve become threatened, taunted, and verbally assaulted all while the warning of severe legal repercussions are waved underneath their noses. To say more about their journey to uncovering the secrets some folks have tried very hard to keep private would spoil the true joys of Tickled, which is nothing if not subversive of even the wildest viewer expectations.
After its seemingly inauspicious beginning, Tickled quickly becomes more than just your standard exposé piece. For the subjects we meet do become empathetic characters, and their tragedies are indisputably unjust. The lives hurt by this online tickling ring are damaged and mistreated worse than anyone should be for doing something innocent. The tickling is kind of odd, yes, but it’s also harmless. Farrier, Reeve and by extension the audience begin to suspect from the outset that there is something or someone more treacherous and duplicitous pulling the strings. In this mystery identity, Tickled finds itself a true villain. And the film’s uncomplicated directors become unexpected heroes for the manipulated and the bullied everywhere.
Compulsively watchable and ending with a satisfying resolution, Tickled’s tangled web is a legit case where the truth is vastly stranger than fiction. But the documentary’s technical merits may not jump out as cinematic or even above average; indeed, the filmmakers place their emphasis on the journalistic integrity of uncovering the facts and not in making pretty pictures. Farrier is first and foremost a journalist. The filmmaking thing sort of joined in on the ride to help expand his viewpoint.
As our guide through the story, Farrier himself makes for a less-than-compelling narrator (he sounds like he should be doing voice-over for a nature channel special on alligators and not globe-trotting to chase cyber criminals). Small technical caveats and minor quibbles with the presentation style ultimately affect the success of Tickled quite little. Some may find it to be nothing more than a really elaborate riff on Catfish and others still may not be able to get past the odd infliction of the whole tickling thing itself. For curious minds willing to dig much deeper than the surface, however, Tickled will stand as one of the year’s most singular nonfiction experiences.