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‘Tickled’ Review: This Has Got to Be the Craziest Documentary Of the Year

Tickled
Magnolia

There’s a point in any tickle attack, as you struggle and strain to catch your breath, where things tip over from funny to painful and maybe even a little scary. The fascinating and bizarre new documentary Tickled follows a similar arc. It began when New Zealand journalist David Farrier discovered a “sport” called Competitive Endurance Tickling, where men are flown to Los Angeles from all around the world, put up in lavish hotel, and paid thousands of dollars to get tickled on camera for as long as they can bear.

The very notion of tickling as athletics is worth a couple laughs, as are the videos of said competitions that Farrier finds on YouTube. But when Farrier finds the organization that put the videos on YouTube, and that same organization threatens to sue him on two different continents purely for reporting on them and then contemplating a documentary on the subject, the humor quickly fades.

Tickled is a fantastic film to watch and discuss but it’s almost impossible to write about it, because most of its pleasures come from following Farrier as he tries to find the powerful figure atop the Competitive Endurance Tickling league. Let it be said that the company is not what it appears to be, and that Farrier delivers more than one shocking revelation in the film’s brief but very entertaining 90 minutes.

The competitive ticklers vehemently deny there’s anything sexual about this so-called sport, and indeed, many of the participants interviewed aren’t looking for kicks; they’re dudes who desperately need some money and agreed to be tickled on camera for a big paycheck. There’s surely a danger in a movie like this to treat the ticklers as weirdos; particularly when some of those ticklers so secretive, angry, and litigious. Farrier never does. He finds another tickler with no ties to the rest, who is open and friendly about his fetish. This tickler talks happily about his interest in tickling. He lets Farrier explore the studio where he films his own tickling videos, and even allows the documentary crew record a sample short. Farrier treats the scene with an appropriate level of curiosity, but he’s never disrespectful. In other words, tickling is no big deal — or it doesn’t have to be.

Without spoiling Tickled’s twists and turns, this methodical and meticulous film is ultimately about more than a kinky hobby, which becomes the absurd entry point into an important discussion about the ways in which wealth enables the rich to control everyone and everything around them. The mystery figure Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve upset uses seemingly limitless funds to bend the universe to their will; spending millions to build an empire on the backs of handsome men in gym shorts tickling each other, and then spending even more to ensure that anyone who threatens that empire is too scared of lawsuits to do anything about it. (As recently as two days ago, Tickled’s main subject continued to accuse the film and its subjects of defamation.)

At a time when billionaires secretly bankroll lawsuits designed to destroy publications they don’t like, and candidates try to bar news organizations from covering their presidential campaigns because of impartial but unfavorable articles, Tickled becomes a surprisingly urgent film (about competitive tickling). But it’s also just a really absorbing work of documentary journalism. When Farrier and his team finally reach the truth in this knotty tale, it’s so unbelievable you could have knocked me over with a feather. Just keep that thing away from my armpits.

Tickled is now playing in theaters.

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