Tickled (documentary)

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“Tickled” is not a documentary about the strange world of “competitive endurance tickling,” whatever that may be. It is, rather, a documentary about one man’s efforts to learn about the strange world of competitive endurance tickling, his curiosity (and ours) growing stronger each time he is rebuffed. Who’s behind this weird pastime? And why are they so secretive?

In this highly entertaining, you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it documentary, New Zealand entertainment journalist David Farrier stumbles across a corner of the Internet where there are videos of young men being restrained while one or more other young men tickle them. That’s it. The videos aren’t sexual – nothing happens beyond the tickling (though the guys do tend to be handsome, athletic, shirtless, and straddling each other), and the videos are framed earnestly as footage of legitimate contests of some kind.

But when Farrier reaches out to the people behind the website, seeking to do a lifestyle story about competitive tickling, he’s baffled by the dismissive, homophobic response he gets from “Debbie,” the woman in charge. Debbie says they want nothing to do with Farrier because HE’S gay, and these tickling videos aren’t. Endurance tickling is just a wholesome competition, nothing sleazy about it, sicko. It’s a weird response, considering Farrier had implied no such thing.

Well, if you want to pique a journalist’s curiosity, the best way to do it is to refuse to answer basic, polite questions about your perfectly legal, non-pornographic business. And if you really want to get him riled up, do what these people did: threaten legal action if he doesn’t drop the subject. Farrier goes down the rabbit hole, seeks out men who’ve been in the videos, meets some individuals tangentially connected to the business side of it, all while getting the runaround from the mysterious proprietors of the main website. His questions are the questions anyone would have: Who’s producing these videos? Is “competitive tickling” real? If it’s erotic, why not just say so? And seriously: who’s making the videos, and where are they finding their ticklers?

I won’t tell you anything more about what unfolds. Much of the film’s magic lies in its surprises, in letting us accompany Farrier on his investigation and learn things as he learns them. Farrier, an amiable onscreen presence, co-directed the movie with Dylan Reeve, and they tell the story expertly, with the right mix of humor and fascination. Farrier meets liars, crazy people, and people whose lives were ruined by crazy people, but he doesn’t ridicule anyone – this isn’t a “look at the freaks” documentary. Instead, it’s an unforgettable examination of online anonymity, cyber-bullying, and the glorious, unsettling weirdness of the Internet.

A- (1 hr., 31 min.; R, a lot of profanity.)