Journalist David Farrier makes a career out of looking into the bizarre parts of life. It’s no wonder that when the New Zealand entertainment and pop-culture reporter stumbled upon a video of competitive tickling, he knew he found his next story. Unexpectedly, it turned into the provocative documentary “Tickled.”
The film is indeed bizarre. What was originally thought to be a quirky story takes a dark, unsavory route when Farrier uncovers the secret, shocking world of a wealthy, control-seeking bully.
“Tickled” begins with Farrier reaching out to Jane O’Brien Media, a Los Angeles-based company that recruits young, physically fit men to participate in tickling competitions for thousands of dollars. He was shocked when the organizers lashed out, attacking his sexuality and denying its interest in coverage. That only deepened his interest – and ours.
Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reeve assumed it was a fetish, but organizers made it known that competitive tickling was a non-erotic endurance sport. The duo, sensing something odd, decided to investigate the story in a documentary.
The film was met with immediate backlash from Jane O’Brien Media. Lawyers who had never met Jane of Jane O’Brien Media traveled to New Zealand to persuade the filmmakers to drop the story. They didn’t want to be on camera, so in one instance Farrier put a camera in a coffee cup. It wasn’t worth going after someone with such deep pockets, they warned.
Yet Farrier and Reeve continued with the story and reached out to some boys in online competitive tickling videos. Most were too nervous to talk, but a former participant came forward to share his story in the movie. He explained that he got into competitive tickling out of desperation when money was tight. When he walked into the tickling shoot, he said he was surprised to learn he would be tied down.
The film cut to the video, which was uncomfortable to watch. The participant was strapped to a blow-up mattress when another sat on his stomach and began tickling. As time went on, more boys joined the action. “I’m feeling violated,” you can hear the red-faced participant say in the video as he laughs and struggles.
It was a torture project, he told the filmmakers, but the aftermath was worse: The videos were put online without his permission. He emailed Jane to ask that it be taken down. When he didn’t get a response, he told YouTube that it was posted without his permission. When it was removed, “all hell broke loose,” he says on camera. Suddenly his videos and contact information were everywhere, and he was receiving threatening messages.
Farrier and Reeve take us to a stakeout outside a studio rumored to be holding a competitive tickling shoot, where we see young men and lawyers enter. You can hear the laughter, which they said went on for hours.
This is when the movie takes a dark turn. When one of the lawyers takes a boy outside for a pep talk, Farrier acknowledges that the situation was getting too creepy. When the filmmakers try to take advantage of an open door, they’re shut out as police action is threatened.
Setting out to confirm that tickling wasn’t a real sport, the filmmakers travel to Florida where they found a man who has been indulging his tickling fetish for years by making videos. The excitement on his face while tickling a tied-up man to the point of torture is not for the faint of heart.
They also connected with a former tickling participant and producer, who worked for a woman who went by Terri Tickled in the ’90s. She had an endless supply of money and harassed and threatened participants when they stopped complying. She was intoxicated with power, the former participant says as he showed the horrifying letters she sent him and his mother. The filmmakers make the connection: This sounds an awful lot like Jane O’Brien.
For the rest of the film, Farrier and Reeve seek to confirm that Terri and Jane are the same person. They spoke to journalists who had been involved in the story and got access to secret files. They publicized a theory using a name found in the files and faced double the lawsuits. Despite concerns from their production staff, they continued the quest to disclose the lies that supported an addiction to tickling videos and ruined the lives of others.
Your curiosity will be at a high from the start to finish. Expect laughter and a lot of cringing along the way.
3 stars (out of four)
Starring: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, Hal Karp, David Starr
Directors: David Farrier and Dylan Reeve
Running time: 92 minutes
Rating: R for language and graphic nature.
The Lowdown: A journalist finds a shocking truth behind competitive tickling.