A film review by Craig J. Koban August 11, 2016

RANK:  #5


2016, R, 96 mins.


A documentary written and directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve

TICKLED 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 Endurance Tickling.  

I’m not making this up.  This is real.  Unnervingly real. 

TICKLED, at 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 needs answers. 

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.    


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