×

Film Review: ‘Tickled’

A fetish video empire proves no laughing matter in this engrossing investigative documentary.

With:
TJ, Richard Ivey, Brian LaChance, David Starr, Alden, Hal Karp, Debbie Scoblionkov, Jordan Schillaci.

What sounds like a fun look at a particularly outre subculture turns out to be no laughing matter in “Tickled.” David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s documentary traces the New Zealand duo’s investigation of an online tickling-video empire, behind which there lurks a monster of cyberbullying and litigiousness. An alarming cautionary tale about how easy it is in the Internet age to ruin people’s lives while hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, the pic boasts a humorously titillating entry hook that soon gives way to engrossing conspiracy-thriller-like content. It should attract healthy sales in various formats, particularly cable broadcast.

Farrier is an Auckland-based TV and radio reporter/personality who’s “made a career looking at the weird and bizarre side of life.” He assumed he’d found just more amusingly offbeat grist for the mill when he stumbled upon an online video offering substantial cash and all-expenses trips to Los Angeles for young athletes willing to participate on camera in the “sport” of “Competitive Endurance Tickling.”

But upon contacting these events’ producer, Jane O’Brien Media, for an interview, he was surprised to receive virulently homophobic responses (Farrier is an out gay man). This seemed ludicrous, since nothing could be more blatantly homoerotic than videos of mattress-bound youths being straddled and tickled all over by other handsome junior jocks. The long-distance insults rapidly took on a lawsuit-threatening nature. Now Farrier and his (straight) collaborator Reeve were intrigued enough to decide their inquiry might merit a whole documentary, despite (or because of) the intimidation tactics.

Traveling to the U.S., they discover only one among a hundred or more former tickling-video participants is willing to talk to them. Others (many underage) are too afraid of reprisals like those the sole exception has already experienced: When TJ objected to footage being disseminated beyond what he’d agreed to, he found himself the victim of a viciously public harassment and slander campaign that seriously impaired his hopes of a pro football career.

The filmmakers also dig up David Starr, a Hollywood fringe dweller and onetime casting agent for “Terri Tickle.” The latter was, like O’Brien, a highly elusive figure who’d run a remarkably similar operation starting in the mid-1990s, and whose activities ceased just about the same time O’Brien’s commenced. When Starr refused to continue procuring young men for reasons similar to TJ’s, he, too, was subjected to exhaustive, elaborate and vile efforts at public and private humiliation — not sparing even his elderly mother or the name of his deceased brother.

Eventually (amid an unending barrage of legal threats), the trail leads to a single, shadowy apparent perp with the inherited wealth to sustain this fetish habit on an international scale — and the maliciousness to deploy blackmail, false identities and more in protecting it. “Tickled” becomes a frightening illustration of how one bully with deep pockets and a mean streak can largely evade punishment, even detection, while wreaking havoc with far-less-privileged others.

On the flip side, we meet Florida entrepreneur Richard Ivey, who is cheerfully upfront about his own successful tickling website (“My Friends’ Feet”) and its advertised aim of providing “Gay Foot Fetish Heaven.” We also see him film a typical session with one consenting, hirsute twentysomething “hunk.” There is no question whatsoever that despite O’Brien’s preposterous claims, all this stuff is just (as Ivey puts it) “whips-and-chains bondage, dialed way down,” yet still clearly designed to arouse. The difference being that Ivey isn’t hiding his intentions, let alone exploiting (or threatening) his consensual participants.

While the filmmakers are often onscreen, “Tickled” is no vanity project — their presence is justified because the harassment they experience in pursuing the story becomes a big part of its narrative. The well-shot and tightly edited pic manages to maintain a sense of humor without belittling its subjects, and glimpses a somewhat gamey underworld without descending into a tabloid-style shocking expose.

Film Review: 'Tickled'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Jan. 20, 2016. (In Sundance Film Festival — World Cinema, competing.) Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — New Zealand) A New Zealand Film Commission presentation, in association with MPI Media Group and Stephen Fry, of a Fumes and Horseshoe production. (International sales: Submarine, New York.) Produced by Carthew Neal. Executive producer, Justin Pemberton.

Crew: Directed by David Farrier, Dylan Reeve. Camera (color), Dominic Fryer; editor, Simon Coldrick; music, Rodi Kirkcaldy, Florian Zwietnig; sound, Cameron Lenart, Gabriel Muller; sound designers, Beth Treday, Nigel Foster; re-recording mixers, Dick Reade, Michael Hedges; associate producers, Richard Ivy, Stephen Fry.

With: TJ, Richard Ivey, Brian LaChance, David Starr, Alden, Hal Karp, Debbie Scoblionkov, Jordan Schillaci.

More Film

  • Apollo 11

    Film News Roundup: 'Apollo 11' Re-Release Set for Moon Landing Anniversary

    In today’s film news roundup, Neon is re-releasing “Apollo 11”; “Sesame Street” gets moved; “Supersize Me 2” is set for Sept. 13; Will Ropp gets a “Silk Road” deal; and Apple makes a movie deal. RE-LAUNCH Neon will re-release Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary “Apollo 11” in theaters on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the [...]

  • Michael B. JordanAFI Awards Luncheon, Los

    Michael B. Jordan's 'Just Mercy' Moves to Awards Season Slot

    Michael B. Jordan’s upcoming legal drama “Just Mercy” has been shifted forward three weeks from Jan. 17 to Dec. 25 for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release. “Just Mercy” is based on the case of Walter McMillan, an African-American death-row prisoner who was exonerated in 1993 after being convicted five years earlier for a 1986 murder in [...]

  • Harry Styles to Play Prince Eric

    Harry Styles in Talks to Play Prince Eric in Disney's 'Little Mermaid'

    Harry Styles is going under the sea. The former One Direction frontman is in early negotiations to play Prince Eric in Disney’s live-action adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” Halle Bailey will portray the Ariel, a mermaid princess who dreams of being a human, while Melissa McCarthy is playing her evil aunt Ursula. “The Little Mermaid” [...]

  • Stuber Movie

    Disney Left With a Slate of Film Flops After Fox Deal

    Is Disney having buyer’s remorse? The studio would be forgiven if it were having some regrets after absorbing 20th Century Fox, the company that once generated big box office with the likes of “Avatar,” “Life of Pi,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” After “Dark Phoenix” bombed earlier this summer, Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista’s action comedy “Stuber” [...]

  • Taika Waititi Returning to Direct 'Thor

    Taika Waititi to Direct Marvel's 'Thor 4'

    Taika Waititi is returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The filmmaker will write and direct the sequel to his 2017 blockbuster “Thor: Ragnarok.” Waititi’s take on the fourth “Thor” movie puts Warner Bros.’ long-in-development “Akira” adaptation on hold indefinitely. However, the studio hopes that “Akira” can get resume production with Waititi at the helm once [...]

  • Akira

    'Akira' Production Put on Hold by Warner Bros.

    Warner Bros. has put its long-in-development “Akira” adaptation on hold indefinitely, sources tell Variety. Sources indicate that after a brief delay, the studio has pulled the plug on production indefinitely for the classic anime adaptation, which was set to begin later this fall. “Thor: Ragnarok” helmer Taika Waititi was on board to direct, and the [...]

  • Sir Elton John, David Furnish. Sir

    New Elton John AIDS Foundation Gala to be Held in the South of France

    Elton John and David Furnish are launching a new gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The two will host the inaugural A Midsummer Party benefit on July 24 in the south of France at the Johnny Pigozzi’s private estate, Villa Dorane, in Cap d’Antibes. A cocktail reception will be followed by dinner, a live [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content