As a journalist, few things are as frustrating as having a great story to tell without the sources to back it up.
Or, at least, making contact with a handful of subjects only to have responses either be delayed or completely unreturned. The men behind Tickled (2016), the strange but riveting documentary that took Sundance by storm last year, know the feeling.
The film begins simply enough. David Farrier, a New Zealand-based television reporter specializing in all things weird, is going through the motions of a typical workday when he discovers a probable new story topic for a piece: competitive tickling. In the videos he uncovers and watches in bewilderment, athletic young men dressed in wrestling or soccer uniforms gang up on a tied-up peer and, sure enough, tickle him until he breaks. The videos appear popular underground, several clips easy to find with enough digging.
Figuring that he’s discovered a fetish of some sort — say the kind of video people turn to when feet just can’t do it anymore — Farrier is eager to publish a feature. The topic aligns with the stories he’s told in the past, which all seem perfect for publication in the latest addition of Ripley’s Believe it or Not anyway.
But when he contacts the company funding these competitive tickling videos, Jane O’Brien Media, he’s met with unexpected hostility. Personal and professional insults are hurled via Facebook messages with the nastiness of a 13-year-old in attack mode. Threats of lawsuits start coming at a rapid pace.This both repulses him and intrigues him more. The hatred he’s faced with is hurtful, certainly, but why is the person behind such a company so cruel when Farrier’s request is generally harmless?
A couple representatives from Jane O’Brien Media are soon flown out to New Zealand to meet with Farrier and the film’s co-director, Dylan Reeve, to help clear the air. But all they seem interested in doing is continuing the hurling of abuse, unwilling to sit in front of cameras nor do official interviews. They, like their unseen employer, are overly sensitive bullies.
Why that is, though, only piques Farrier and Reeve’s interest, and before long do they make contact with one of the tickling videos’ participants. And in store is a story they, and us, do not expect.
The 20-something in question makes it clear that competitive tickling not only does not exist outside of Jane O’Brien Media, but also that his experience with the entire ordeal has involved blackmail and corruption. He participated in the video initially because he was cash strapped. He was told it would never see the light of day.
When it somehow made its way onto YouTube, he flagged the post, and it was promptly taken down. And that caused the “company” to go berserk, spreading the video like wildfire, posting the participant’s personal information down wherever applicable, and even going as far as crassly emailing potential employers and warning them that the man they’re interested in hiring is a sexual predator. The young man makes it clear that Jane O’Brien Media, for all intents and purposes, has ruined his life.
The further Farrier and Reeve go down the rabbit hole, the more they discover that this exact thing has happened to nearly all the participants featured in these tickling videos — and that such has been going on, in different forms, for nearly two decades.
By the time we get around to discovering the almost comically evil person behind the eccentric terror, Tickled, does, in a way, become a letdown, if only because there’s no way such an explosive, albeit bizarre, storyline can have a conclusion that matches the melodrama of all coming before it.
But there’s no denying what an entertaining movie Tickled is, topping off its thrills with the message that there really are a large assortment of monstrous people on this planet. Just because the basis of one’s evil is strange doesn’t make them any less vile. That the perpetrator worked as vice principal at a variety of schools and later became a lawyer is horrifying.
For all its frightful detours, though, Tickled maintains a lightness that backs the bafflement we’re clearly supposed to feel. One wishes Farrier and Reeve pushed slightly harder for a bombastic ending. But when you’re dealing with a real-life, albeit wacky, James Bond villain, there’s no point in risking it all in the name of a documentary for which you already have most of the content.