‘Tickled’ Review: An Expose of the Underground World of … Tickling? | Sundance 2016

     January 28, 2016

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The Internet’s a weird place. Every fetish, every oddity commercialized and legitimized – your basic film website and ‘Two Girls, One Cup’ living side by side, both just a click away. New Zealand journalist David Farrier has made a career of uncovering these nooks and crannies of the offbeat web, his search leading him to an odd Tickling Endurance Competition. Yes – this is just as silly (and disturbing) as it sounds. A young man, in only his boxers, is strapped onto a bed as a group of two or three other men tickle him with feather, with brush, with their fingers until he can take it no longer. This (in and of itself) could be a film. What would make someone join a ‘Tickling Competition’? Who is the audience for such a thing? How do you even win? But this is just the set-up for what becomes a deep-dive look into online harassment, doxxing, and the repercussions suffered thereafter.

Farrier, upon discovering the Tickling Endurance Competition, asks the company behind the event (Jane O’Brien Media) for a simple quote; but the company instead refuses Farrier’s request, taking swipes at his homosexuality and threatening the journalist with legal action should he pursue any further. Of course this only stokes the fire – and soon Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve are on the case, searching for why Jane O’Brien Media would take such an immediately hostile stance and who exactly lurks behind the keyboard on the other side.


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Image via Sundance

Tickled is a hard film to review – most of its best moments come from the surprise of just how wild this investigation becomes and where it ultimately leads Farrier and Reeve. Suffice to say, the journey takes the New Zealanders overseas to LA, to Michigan and ultimately to New York. Along the way, they meet a former casting agent for the competition, a founder of a rival tickling website and a participant in one of Jane O’Brien’s videos.

There’s a terrific sequence early on in the documentary where Farrier waits at the New Zealand airport for legal representatives of Jane O’Brien to arrive. Farrier stands at the arrival area with an ironic rainbow-colored sign to greet the men who have belittled him online with derogatory comments. The sequence quickly shifts from comic to grave as the representatives arrive and slowly realize what Farrier’s up to, shouting and threatening him to turn the cameras off. Tickled is at its best when twisting what on the surface appears to be comedy into tragedy. A tickling competition is a ludicrous concept, but as the filmmakers discover – beneath the foolishness lies something far more nefarious and potentially illegal. The film gains most of it weight through this juxtaposition, revealing the cruelty and despair that lurks below the silly.

The documentary works as a terrific bit of investigative filmmaking — Errol Morris filtered through ‘Too Many Cooks’ — as Farrier and Reeve make their way through the byzantine web: the firewalls, the fake names, the shell companies that little men hide behind whilst harassing strangers hundreds and thousands of miles away. When Farrier and Reeve finally find their boogeyman, the ‘who’ is less shocking than how he could have gotten away with his activities for so long. There’s an undercurrent of anger to the doc: why allow anonymous online bullies to threaten and push us into submission and fear? By bucking the bullish name-calling, the unfounded threats and the personal attacks, Farrier and Reeves cathartically cast light onto shady Internet stooges who gain their power through such unseemly tactics. Quite a serious feat for a documentary ‘about’ a tickling competition.

Rating: A-


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