'Tickled': Sundance Review

Tickled still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A fascinating, stranger-than-fiction exposé.

Fetish videos, character assassination and legal threats are just the tip of the bizarro iceberg when filmmakers uncover the predatory secrets behind an online entity.

When David Farrier came across social-media notice of a “competitive endurance tickling” event in Los Angeles, he thought he’d lit upon another amusingly weird topic for his lighthearted reports on New Zealand television. But the Donkey Lady, frog-eating survivalists and Justin Bieber were nothing compared with what the pop-culture journalist would uncover.

In the captivating and jaw-dropping Tickled, he and fellow first-time director Dylan Reeve chronicle an investigation that would take them down a rabbit hole of legal threats and private investigators, leading to a mysterious deep-pocketed exploiter of young men in the name of a fetish subculture. But the erotic-torture appeal of tickling (who knew?) is only a piece of the suspenseful puzzle. In its genial, low-key way, the film, premiering at Sundance, is a chilling account of cyberbullying, perpetrated on a disturbingly wide scale over many years.

Before the directors shift into full-on gumshoe mode, the backstory is handled deftly, with a concise mix of screen shots (websites and emails) and Farrier’s re-enacted reactions. The first red flag, wildly waving, is the hostile response he receives to his initial inquiry about competitive tickling. On behalf of Jane O’Brien Media, the company organizing the Los Angeles meet, a woman named Debbie Kuhn attacks the journo for his homosexuality, insisting that the “sport” of tickling can’t be associated with such deviancy.

Cue the cringe-inducing, O’Brien-branded online videos, in which one to five good-looking young men straddle another guy, who’s immobilized by straps at his ankles and wrists. An occasional woman shows up as a tickler — at least in the so-called audition tapes that the filmmakers uncover — but never as the ticklee.

From there it only gets weirder. Reeve, the techie half of the directing duo, digs into the O’Brien outfit’s internet activity, tracing it and hundreds of related sites to a German parent company. By the time he and Farrier embark on a documentary project, O’Brien’s reps have unleashed a storm of lawsuits, personal attacks and thinly veiled threats against Reeve’s wife and kids.

Undeterred — although frequently and understandably alarmed — Farrier and Reeve take their investigation (and cameras) stateside, crisscrossing the country to speak with tickling-video participants. Bolstered by key background briefings from a couple of American journalists, they delve into evidence of an O’Brien predecessor, Terri DiSisto, similarly prominent in the, um, tickling realm, yet just as much a shadow figure.

Tales of privacy violation and character assassination multiply. A onetime casting agent for DiSisto, who dealt with her only through digital and written communication and became one of the many people she eventually targeted for retaliation, characterizes her as an “extreme dominatrix” and “a strange, rich brat.” The tickling-video impresario’s seemingly limitless funds are a crucial aspect of the increasingly troubling story; it’s a story of economic exploitation as much as anything else, even as the videos themselves don’t generate income.

By instructive comparison, the directors journey to Orlando, where an avowed tickling fetishist, Richard Ivey (who has an associate producer credit on the doc), runs a lucrative business producing tickle-porn videos. Ivey, a study in normcore, speaks of the low-level sadism of tickling, and the deadpan Farrier witnesses a video shoot featuring a studly, partially unclothed young man. Next to the sadistic offscreen tactics of O’Brien and DiSisto, Ivey’s enterprise shines with purity.

The documentary’s first big reveal arrives a little more than halfway through, and more twists will follow, with a mysterious zip file and a treasure trove of online documents tracking the digital-age saga to Long Island high schools, a Wall Street law firm and federal crimes.

As he and Reeve deal with threats, warnings and nervous producers, Farrier’s dry Kiwi humor infuses the proceedings with a relaxed energy that somehow makes the underlying tension all the more effective. The use of quietly eerie music tracks by filmmaker Shane Carruth (Primer) suits the material to a T, and Dominic Fryer’s intimate camerawork puts the viewer right next to the directing duo on their tireless stakeouts. Their determination pays off. They identify not just a devious and destructive manipulator but egregious failures of the legal system. By the time Tickled fades out, no one is laughing.

Production company: Ticklish Tale Ltd.
Directors: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve
Producer: Carthew Neal  
Executive producer: Justin Pemberton  
Director of photography: Dominic Fryer
Editor: Simon Coldrick
Sales: Submarine Entertainment

No rating, 92 minutes