REVIEW: Tickled [2016]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 92 minutes | Release Date: May 26th, 2016 (New Zealand)
Studio: Vendetta Films / Magnolia Pictures
Director(s): David Farrier & Dylan Reeve

“All of this over some tickling”

When a journalist known for delving into the weird side of pop culture and society stumbles across an online video depicting a young man tied to a table as four other young men tickle him in a “sport” dubbed “Competitive Tickling,” there’s no way he closes that window to continue his search elsewhere. That is the story—it’s like the Holy Grail of stories when it comes to David Farrier even before the real craziness begins. Because the simple premise of this athletic endurance challenge isn’t the craziest part of his and Dylan Reeve‘s documentary Tickled. Receiving a letter from Jane O’Brien Media (the producer of said videos) with hate speech saying the company wasn’t for homosexuals isn’t even the craziest thing. Just watch and see.

The best part of the ensuing adventure is our knowing it could have been prevented had Jane O’Brien Media spokeswoman Debbie J. Kuhn replied to Farrier’s request in a professional manner. She probably could have respectfully declined interest in having a story done on their eccentric activities and parted ways without a second thought. Why she chose to use homophobic rhetoric in context with a niche industry Farrier himself calls “somewhat gay” is beyond anyone’s imagination at the start. Why she continues to harass him afterwards, egging him on to the point of basically asking for a more in-depth investigation to be performed is even more unfathomable. And once lawyers get involved with cease-and-desists, seeing the story to its completion becomes Farrier’s only feasible action.

To say the journey’s trajectory is difficult to discern, however, would be a lie. It’s twists and turns are obvious to anyone who saw a similarly composed and reliant-upon-hidden-truths documentary from 2010 (its title a potential spoiler) as today’s 21st Century digital landscape provides a playground for anyone to wreak havoc on strangers’ lives whether maliciously or not. It only takes David and Dylan one meeting with a trio of American-based employees on Jane O’Brien’s payroll to understand something’s amiss. The Americans’ threats are assertive, their kindness under the belief these New Zealand documentarians will stop excavating sugary sweet. And upon discovering the first “whistleblower” in TJ Gretzner, a man whose personal and professional lives were slandered thanks to O’Brien’s illegal activities, the whole thing blows wide open.

Despite the subject matter, Tickled truly is a fascinating depiction of investigative journalism at its finest. When Farrier and Reeve began they had little more than an anonymous website and a derogatory email chain. From there it was a matter of making the assault known publically before Jane O’Brien Media commenced digging its own grave. Lawyers joined the fray, some light hacking unearthed European ties, and the filmmakers’ fear of legal ramifications nudged them to hit pause and look elsewhere for context. So they find other tickling sites, speak with the owner for one and former employees of others. Tickling transitions from “sport” to fetish as it should have always been classified and connections are quickly found so the truth can start peeking its way in.

Everything is from the directors’ vantage point via hidden cameras, tape recorders, and the oft full-access interviews with those willing to speak on the record despite any harassment they’ve already received as a result of telling their respective employers, “No more.” The New Zealanders began turning their journalistic hunt into a documentary fairly early on—this evolution proving the greatest target of Jane O’Brien’s ire—so we pretty much watch it all unfold in sequence while it’s happening. Every revelation clicks into place with us as soon as it does them, nothing is held back for the benefit of drama. Tickled literally is as suspenseful and dumbfoundingly elaborate as shown without a need for embellishment. It epitomizes the saying “too crazy not to be true.”

If you’re technologically savvy enough to understand the breadth of what’s occurring electronically and a fan of intricate crime webs populated by unsuspecting foot soldiers underneath an unknown puppet-master’s thumb, nothing that occurs will shock or surprise you. But that doesn’t make every new diversion any less compelling. We put the pieces together that things aren’t what they seem and agree with the filmmakers once they scratch at the surface of this bona fide conspiracy, but we’re never certain until more facts are exposed. The endgame isn’t about finding out who Jane O’Brien is as much as it is about leaping down the rabbit hole behind David and Dylan as they use their expertise to collect the answers they’ve sought since the beginning. My personal investment was unwavering.

It’s crude, shaky, and inaudible enough to warrant subtitles in some scenes, but this covert aesthetic lends an authenticity to the chase. These guys have their own lives at stake, knowing they’ve become too close to the truth to simply back down and walk away no matter how many people close to the situation recommend doing exactly that. The amount of money being thrown around despite Jane O’Brien seemingly earning no profits off the videos her company produces—all released without the participants’ consent—is insane. It’s so cartoonish in nature that you can’t blame the young men for taking $1,500 on top of gifts to be tickled for an hour. What’s the harm? As Farrier and Reeve discover, it’s incalculably damaging. Coordinated, globally pervasive, and highly effective.

[1] David Farrier, Richard Ivey, and a tickle subject in TICKLED, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[2] A scene from TICKLED, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[3] David Farrier in TICKLED, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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