Tickled stays buoyant in its delivery.
The timing of David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s disturbing investigation into the world of Competitive Endurance Tickling is uncanny. Plot points include a judge handing down a shockingly light sentence to a perpetrator of a sexual crime, horrible acts of cyberbullying, wealthy predators taking advantage of desperate youth in economically shattered Michigan and even a stop in gay Orlando. Tickled was filmed in 2015, so its overlap with current events isn’t exploitative. Instead, the similarities between the film and recent headlines from California, Michigan, Florida and elsewhere paint a portrait of the dangers of unchecked wealth, exploitation, homophobia and bullying.
These are heavy topics for a movie about tickling and it’s a testament to the directors that Tickled stays buoyant in its delivery. The film begins in Auckland, New Zealand and follows journalist Farrier as he investigates his unusual subject, which for Farrier means lighthearted trolling on social media. When Jane O’Brien Media, the company responsible for a tickling event that Farrier stumbles upon, responds with homophobic threats, Farrier teams up with his friend Reeve to comically spar with company representatives. When three media reps fly down to New Zealand to meet with the filmmakers, things get serious, as Farrier greets them at the airport with a garish, rainbow-hued sign and a video camera to film their response: aggression.
This is where Tickled transforms from a quirky tale of a little guy taking on mean-spirited tickle-bullies into an investigation of deeper, darker themes. Farrier and Reeve fly to the United States to hunt for more information on Jane O’Brien Media and uncover truly shocking revelations. By the time the film reaches it halfway point, it has become a kind of crime thriller. Their antagonist identified, Farrier and Reeve turn their efforts from investigating the “sport” of tickling to understanding what is surely one of the most cinema’s most fascinating villains in recent memory.
While grim, there are still moments of humor and even joy. A stop at one of Jane O’Brien’s competitors in Orlando shows the happier, pornier side of the world of tickling. A middle-aged tickling tycoon lounging poolside with his dogs will bring a smile to the most cynical viewers. And though they’re up to serious business, the filmmakers’ boldness and bravery is matched in equal measure by their ineptitude as investigators, which provides a few laughs. Their big breaks come in the form of luck or mistakes made by their foes.
Tickled’s abundant successes are offset by a couple of problems, most significantly, its refusal to take a stance on sexuality. Though the instigating incident is a homophobic attack against Farrier, he makes no mention of his own sexuality. Interview subjects express horror that Jane O’Brien Media portrayed them as gay, but a lack of context seems to suggest that this is a simply a bad thing. Finally, a climactic interview feels like dangerously uneducated armchair psychology rather than a revelation. And while Tickled’s relatively sloppy approach to investigation is charming, the inclusion of documentary stock footage (such as an anonymous woman typing ominously in a shadowy room and an abundance of wistful shots of cold, bleak cityscapes) makes its otherwise shiny presentation feel like an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.”
As with many documentaries, the lack of a firm resolution is disappointing but not surprising. Viewers will find themselves hoping for a sequel, or perhaps that Jane O’Brien Media becomes the subject of the next season of “Serial.” Still, the sheer entertainment value of Tickled cannot be denied. What begins as a master class in awkward humor quickly descends into the dark, dangerous world of cyberbullying and from there investigates the freedom and power that money can give the most dangerous of characters. As strange as this sounds given its niche subject, the film is vital viewing for those scared or frustrated by the world today.