It’s hard to know just how to describe Tickled, a documentary that’s ostensibly about competitive tickling, with heavy emphasis on the “ostensibly.” Because while it is every bit the long weird trip down an obscure internet rabbit hole the pitch would imply, it’s also relevant and timely. The questions it raises should matter to us all, and I don’t mean in a hokey “love conquers all” or “family is forever” kind of way. Tickled is about the wonderfully esoteric world of tickle fetishism, sure, and that’s part of what makes it so great. But it’s also about “doxxing,” revenge porn, and all the thorny questions that come up when you need to send information out into the world but also maintain some control over who sees it. And of course, there’s also that timeless chestnut about wealth’s seemingly unlimited capacity to thwart the legal system.
Which is to say, it’s about a sadistic rich guy who controls an empire of exploitative “tickle cells” using a mix of legal threats, smear campaigns, and payola. …I know, right?
Where to begin: Kiwi journalist David Farrier — introduced in Tickled‘s opening sequence as “New Zealand’s favorite pop culture reporter” — comes across a “contest” online, sponsored by a mysterious entity called “Jane O’Brien Media,” wherein “young athletes” from all across the globe were encouraged to sign up for monthly “competitive endurance tickling” matches, that come with a $1,500 top prize and free travel expenses to anyone selected to “compete.” Farrier (who co-directed Tickled, with Dylan Reeve) tries to reach out to anyone involved with the contest for an interview, and instead receives a warning that the people putting it on don’t want to be associated with a “homosexual journalist.” (Farrier never bothers to confirm whether he even is homosexual, probably because it’s irrelevant.) He keeps trying for an interview, and the responses get nastier and nastier until they evolve into full-blown homophobic harassment.
Naturally, this harassment, presumably intended to make Farrier move on to another story, has the opposite effect. Just what the hell is going on here? What are they hiding? And why the homophobic language, especially coming from a sponsor of what is clearly a form of homoerotic vanilla bondage?
One of the functions of the documentarian in a story like this is to be our avatar, dogged and bold in the pursuit of answers the way we could never be. It’s refreshing that Farrier and Reeve, preternaturally polite Kiwis though they may be, realize that being objective doesn’t mean being a doormat. In the face of repeated legal threats and your basic camera-shy bad guys, repeatedly refuse to back off the story, or to shut off the camera just because some asshole tells them to. Their boldness is exactly what the story needs, and what this kind of documentary so often lacks.
Farrier finds out almost instantly that “competitive tickling” was never really a sport, so much as a type of “tickle cell,” just one of a number of quasi-scams, where the goal is making videos of young, muscular men getting tickled. What’s more, he comes to find out that all of these tickle cells, and the ambiguous corporate and legal entities that sponsor and shelter them — Jane O’Brien Media, Debbie Kuhn, etc — seem to lead back to just one guy: David D’Amato, a rich recluse so eccentric and vindictive he makes The Jinx‘s Robert Durst seem charming and relatable.
Most of D’Amato’s schemes seem to follow a similar pattern: Spend lavishly to finance the creation of videos featuring hot muscular young men being tickled. Then, once the men in the videos decide they don’t want to do it anymore, or that the tickle cell isn’t living up to the terms of whatever bargain they’d made, they’re barraged with a combination of outing, legal threats, and basic harassment. It’s doxxing, revenge porn, and spam all rolled into one. The harassment is notable not only for its relentlessness, but for its sadistic creativity. One of D’Amato’s former talent scouts reads Christmas cards D’Amato (under an alias) had sent to his mother, calling her son a pornographer and a pervert and bringing up his dead brother. It’s also frequently darkly comedic, like one of the first missives Farrier receives from “Debbie Kuhn” at Jane O’Brien Media: “Competitive reality tickling is a passionately and exclusively heterosexual athletic endurance activity.”
One of the worst parts of being caught in some online harassment loop is that something this silly can still be ruining your life.
If there’s a weakness to Tickled, it’s that the visuals often feel like a placeholder while the (fascinating) story is being delivered largely through text and audio. There are shots of cities, shots of Farrier driving, shots of Farrier typing, shots of Farrier reading — the film feels like it’s roughly 80 percent B-roll. A story as engrossing and macabre as Tickled doesn’t need to be visually dazzling, but it still could’ve done with some polish.