Some of the best documentaries start out seeming to be about one subject and turn out to be about something totally different. That is definitely the central tactic of "Tickled," a movie that suggests a deep dive into the bizarre world of "competitive tickling" but surfaces as a film exposing one person's manipulative use of power and money.
New Zealand journalist David Farrier and filmmaker Dylan Reeve knew they were on to something big when Farrier started to face threats and fierce legal resistance to his investigation of online tickling videos posted by a company named Jane O'Brien Media. They uncover a rather fascinating story, but whether the fish they caught is "feature documentary big" is the larger question that follows this movie around like a shadow.
Bringing to light that some people have tickling fetishes certainly doesn't merit a 90-minute film, so the story Farrier and Reeve uncover has to be worthy of that time. To that end, you could make the case either way. Their investigation of the mysterious entity of Jane O'Brien Media is the bulk of the film's action, and they carefully unfurl the story, detail by important detail, to maximize tension. Some of these details seem obvious, making their deliberate withholding of information or of their key sources a little more gimmicky than journalistic.
The story develops legs when we meet some of the young men who have been victimized by this company. Jane O'Brien Media deliberately seeks out young athletic men who will be incentivized by money; the problem is that when any of this "talent" tries to back out, the company uses the videos to ruin the young men's online reputations, i.e. making these videos high in search results about them and plastering their name all over the internet with the videos. What's unsaid is the way this exploits the homoerotic nature of the tickling videos as leverage for extortion.
"Tickled," however, focuses on finding out the truth about Jane O'Brien Media more so than the power of using the internet to manipulate people, or about how casting young men in a homosexual light can do incredible damage to their lives. These are issues that warrant exploration, but Farrier and Reeve mostly use them to add stakes and tone to their investigation.
Investigative reporting is also not visually interesting, which "Tickled" struggles with. Too many shots show Farrier or other subjects/sources in the documentary sitting at a computer, or hands typing on a keyboard with voice-over. This is also the limitation of a story that lives almost exclusively in a digital realm. All of Farrier's brazen attempts to confront the people he needs answers from seem like courageous, bold actions taken in the name of truth, but the flipside of that coin is that his documentary would be nothing without them. There's no action in this film without him taking it.
A major newspaper report or a long "60 Minutes" segment would seem most appropriate for "Tickled." As fascinating as the truth they discover and the portrait they paint of the individual behind all this are, the documentary feature format feels like an exhaustive means of telling the story. Farrier and Reeve also ignore the most interesting questions in favor of the mystery narrative, though some of Farrier's voice- over toward the end reveals their awareness of these bigger issues. There's one attempt to tie together the film's main topics of tickling and a controlling, abusive individual, but it requires overt explanation, and when that occurs, you know a documentary has become a little too splintered.
"Tickled" tells a story absolutely worth hearing and raises important questions, but because its tellers discovered themselves in the middle of that story, they weren't quite able to see the big picture and tell that story in a way most fitting for the big screen and that best tackled the issues at its core.
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