R, 96 mins.
2016, R, 96 mins.
A documentary written and directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve
is a new documentary that starts off weirdly and whimsically and then
later journeys down into an endlessly perverted, twisted, and disturbing
rabbit hole that reveals the deplorable influence that people with power
and money have over those with none.
Funded on Kickstarter in 2014 and inspired by the investigative endeavors
of New Zealand journalist David Farrier – co-directing the film with his
partner Dylan Reeve – TICKLED is an expose about an unrelentingly
strange, yet hypnotically fascinating world of – ahem! – Competitive
I’m not making
this up. This is real.
superficial face value, is a chronicle of a purely laughable professional
enterprise and sport...if you can even qualify it as the latter.
Farrier is established very early on in the film as a journalist
that focuses on light entertainment pieces for the amusement
of viewers. Looking for his
next major story, he happens to come across a video online for Competitive
Endurance Tickling. Now, what
is Competitive Endurance Tickling, you may ask?
It's a “sport” (a term used ever-so-loosely by me for the
purposes of this review) in which young athletic men – paid large
amounts of money for people in their youthful state and position – whose
arms and legs are bound and tied up, leaving them completely susceptible
to be aggressively tickled all over their
most delicate regions of their body. It's essentially a tickle orgy. Initially, the videos presented here look awkwardly amusing,
but then it quickly began to dawn on me that there was an undeniable
fetishistic homoeroticism to this activity…and it sort of comes off as a creepy
form of torture.
Needless to say,
Farrier is intrigued and reaches out to the video’s production company
Jane O’Brien Media on Facebook. What
he gets back is a rather viciously worded homophobic threat-laced response that
matter-of-factly tells him that the company will not conduct any interview
with a “Little gay Kiwi.” Farrier,
being a proudly outed gay man, finds their response both alarming and
ironic…seeing as their tickling videos do indeed come of as, in his
words, “slightly gay.” Not
being able to take “no” for an answer – especially considering the
volatility by which the “no” was given – Farrier begins to dive into
the world of Competitive Endurance Tickling by asking many obvious
questions? Who funds
this...and how? Who are these tickle subjects and where did they come from?
Why is there an audience for this?
Much like every viewer watching this film, Farrier desperately
He decides to
take matters into his own hands and realizes that a documentary on this
bizarre online phenomenon would be in order, but the more he probes the
more hostile Jane O’Brien Media becomes with him, issuing further threats, legal
action attacks, and all other warnings of the alarming variety.
With added fuel to his already ignited fire of insatiable curiosity,
Farrier embarks on his next logical step: After a face-to-face meeting with the media group’s apparent PR
people ends rather badly, he treks out to L.A. to the site where the
videos are shot, produced, and released.
With each breadcrumb-like clue that Jane O’Brien Media leaves the more Farrier eagerly gobbles them up, leading him eventually
to a few
participants in the videos (revealing themselves to have had their lives
ruined by the media group's coercive and defaming tactics) and
eventually – and most alarmingly – to a rather mysterious American
man with a sordid and unholy past that may or may not be the ring leader
behind the entire Competitive Endurance Tickling empire.
TICKLED does what
great documentaries should do: It reveals to viewers a subject matter that
many in attendance probably had no idea existed and explores it
in a compulsively watchable and enthralling manner.
What begins with Farrier as a potentially silly story about an
outlandishly obscure Internet pastime fully emerges, piece by piece and
minute by minute, as a frightening cautionary tale of how
cyber bullying and the widespread anonymity that the Internet provides
helps entice the darker impulses of some truly despicable souls.
It’s easy to instantly dismiss exploring this viral tickling
empire as stranger-than-fiction fluff journalism, but as Farrier and the
film bravely peeks around every corner of corrupt, shameful, and
unsettling web of lies and deceit at the heart of it all…the documentary
becomes all the more intense, thrilling, and surprisingly suspenseful.
I’ve seen fictional thrillers with far less tension in
them than what’s on display in TICKLED; once you become hypnotically
ensnared by this film…it’s hard to look or walk away.
And this film is
unendingly riveting from beginning to end.
TICKLED takes Farrier and company on a perpetual journey of
scandalous discovery. From
his meeting with the exceedingly defensive and socially venomous media
reps to his own chat with the poor men who had their lives destroyed when
they tried to quietly and respectfully walk away from Competitive
Endurance Tickling, TICKLED generates more head-shaking intrigue and
condemnation of its subject matter than I was ever expecting.
There are some quieter moments in the film, like one very cordial
interview Farrier manages to nail with another American entrepreneur (not
associated with Jane O’Brien Media) that gives him a remarkably
transparent open door tour of his vast tickling production office and
studio. This mogul is
refreshingly blunt about the moneymaking opportunities in Competitive
Endurance Tickling and doesn’t hide behind it, which validates Farrier
even further of his unstoppably obsessive drive to get Jane O’Brien Media to at
least acknowledge his basic queries as to their business ethics.
The saddest and
most distressing victims in all of this are the young men – most of
which are too afraid to be on camera for fear of feeling the wraith of the
media group – who are essentially enslaved within the sport that they
partook in primarily for money when they were at their most destitute and
needy in life. One
unfortunate man named T.J. courageously appears in the doc
to reveal that he was blackmailed by Jane O’Brien Media to
the point of having most of his life at home and on the work front ruined.
The common thread here is that poor young men that needed financial
rescuing are essentially fish-in-a-barrel targets and eventually victims
of Jane O’Brien Media; the overwhelming methods that they employ to decimate the livelihoods of T.J. and so many countless
others is nauseating.
The malicious intent perpetrated on the victims of these videos is
one of TICKLED’S more damning and head shaking discoveries.
TICKLED, on the
whole, is basically a painful and deplorable indictment of the merciless
intent that some people have to hurt others online and how deceptively
easy it is for some to stay hidden on the Internet while inflicting
unpardonable harm on others.
These people are the worst kind of cowards.
Farrier’s exhaustive and, to be fair, brave globetrotting
expedition (brave in the sense that he was facing limitless legal and
personal threats on an ongoing basis from Jane O’Brien Media) does
ultimately hit successful pay dirt when he uncovers a singular corrupt mind
that’s reasonably behind it all, a person tainted by years of mental
illness and frequent occupational jumps in the education system (sigh)
that was given vast financial resources due to a trust fund inheritance to
finance his sickening proclivities. When
it’s revealed that this deviant – despite his abhorrent history of
online abuse, dishonesty, sleazy business practices, and his appalling
treatment of hundreds of paid off participants in these videos (most of
whom would never mentally recover from them) – got a ridiculously light
slap on the wrist with virtually no jail time after being apprehended is
one of TICKLED’s most incredulously frustrating disclosures.
When you're a product of inherited wealth and have a cozy relationship
with a powerful legal empire such as this man…the message here is
clear: you can get away with anything.
On a positive, TICKLED does triumphantly emerge as a love ballad to audacious and intrepid investigative news journalism. Farrier was definitely a valiant figure in all of this, risking everything he held dear while facing contemptible harassment to get answers, exposing a very wicked and impure business kingdom, and helping right some very ghastly wrongs in the process. I had a very hard time shaking this film from my system after screening it. It’s a beyond sobering viewfinder into the valueless morality that exists in our contemporary digital world, one in which the number of people that are personally humiliated and shattered on social media versus those that have the power to do just that is staggeringly disproportionate. TICKLED doesn’t end on a euphoric high, though, that victory has been attained by Farrier. The end of his investigation made me hang my head in shame and contemplate the inhumanity of man. The way this film morphs from being lightweight and inconsequential to something that confirms our most nightmarish fears about the Internet is a testament to its masterfully transfixing power.