It started as a quirky, can-you-believe-this? story, the sort of fringe-culture ephemera that David Farrier specialized in. A New Zealand TV reporter known for interviewing survivalists, cosplayers, a local named “the Donkey Lady” and Justin Bieber, Farrier had stumbled across a Web site promoting a sport called “Competitive Endurance Tickling” — essentially, strapping young men in sports jerseys sitting atop other bound athletic gents and, yes, tickling them. Curious about what exactly this “sport” entailed, the journalist sent out an interview request to the company behind the events, Jane O’Brien Media. What he received back were surprisingly aggressive, slur-filled missives from the organization’s representative; after digging a bit more and posting some findings online, representatives from the company fly out to Auckland to personally warn him that he’d better back off or else.
“This tickling wormhole was getting deeper!” Farrier exclaims, in the first of many facepalmingly obvious voiceover nuggets. (The MVP winner of this particular contest is “We decided to make a documentary on this bizarre subject,” delivered some 20 minutes or so into the documentary you are currently watching. Noted!) So he and codirector Dylan Reeve do what any intrepid reporters would: stake out one of these CET shoots in Los Angeles and try and get some answers. And what began as a investigative lark soon turns into uncovering a vast conspiracy involving small-town MMA fighters, viral-video blackmail, death threats delivered in auto-tuned British accents, lawyered-up dummy corporations, ex-porn stars, and a mysterious Mabuse-like figure living in Long Island.
As an example of cinejournalism, Tickled is near-impossible to take seriously, even as Farrier and Reeve’s Nick Broomfield-esque bumbling blows the lid on a genuinely frightening individual. It’s way too caught up in its own gonzo cleverness, several tangential strains involving tickle fetishes feel like they’re simply there to pad out the running time, and the less said about a slow-motion scene involving a bird of prey grabbing a squirrel, the better. (Because he’s a predator, see?) But as a look at the dark art of doxing and how money can enable pathological behavior and power trips, the movie is undeniably compelling in its own sloppy, slapdash way. By the time the filmmakers set up a potential face-to-face with the gentleman making their lives hell, you’re too scared to laugh with them or at them.