The odds have it that you have not harbored a longstanding fascination with the sport of competitive tickling. It’s damn near certain that you’ve never participated in, spectated, read up on, or—hell, let’s be frank—even heard of the pastime or its bizarre subculture before happening upon notice of David Farrier’s new documentary Tickled. And I’d venture to guess that it wasn’t so much with an open embrace but a cautious shudder that you endured this late introduction to the competitive tickling netherworld… though maybe I’m just projecting. Unfamiliar, alienating, and almost intrinsically uncomfortable, competitive tickling the sort of subject matter that you can’t imagine anyone having asked to see a movie about. And yet, here we are.
Why we, platonic ideals of the untickled body politic, would bother to engage with a documentary like journalist Farrier’s directorial debut boils down to a question of the human condition… or maybe just a bit of a cop out answer: curiosity. Clean, twisted, hungry human curiosity. The kind that only grows and quickens the stranger, more confusing, and less traversable its subject becomes. It’s the fuel of not only any given viewing of Tickled, but the movie’s very creation.
Let me quell that queasy feeling in your stomach right away—there’s actually not that much tickling going on in Tickled. New Zealand journalist Farrier himself was no veteran to the vellicating arts. He stumbled by digital happenstance upon something weird and decided to dig up the makings of a story. And believe it or not, it got weirder. And weirder. So did his curiosity build, and so did he keep digging.
And really, that’s what Tickled is about: the quest of pulling back the curtain on the phenomenon’s ever-increasingly mysterious and convoluted realm. Though Farrier himself begins his journey armed only with the healthy suspicions that anyone taking nascent steps upon a long-tickled underbelly might, he soon trades in his role as observer of the odd (the film opens with a brief visual history of past targets of Farrier’s intrigue, from frog-eating survivalists to Justin Bieber devotees) in favor of one as de facto detective.
This effort is never in vain. Investigation of the sport and its subculture leads Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve down a rabbit hole of fetishism, fraud, blackmail, bigotry, and some truly menacing behavior. (Tickled gets scary!) The darker their finds, the more the filmmaking pair continue on. But even as Farrier and Reeve begin to unearth corners of the tickling tophet that ring more off-putting, sinister, and legitimately criminal than they ever expected, Tickled never seems to tout itself as a righting-of-wrongs conquest or any kind of “message movie.” From beginning to end, the film’s journey is motivated by and effectively about curiosity.
And that’s exactly what it breeds. Granted, Farrier’s inexperience with feature filmmaking betrays him along the way. He doesn’t quite display the acumen for the technical nor for long-form storytelling, that a narrative like Tickled really demands; as Farrier defaults to the basest examples of matter-of-fact directing and expositional narration, we wonder about the grand cinematic majesty we might have seen had he entrusted the final product to a documentarian with a little more knowhow. But none of Tickled‘s missteps rob its story from the pursuit, celebration, and provocation of the most powerful tool that any filmmaker or viewer can bring to a story: the irrational want and need to find out more. Trust me, it’ll hit early on and just keep growing.
Rating: 4 out of 5 enchantingly bizarre burritos.
Images: Magnolia Pictures
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist, and really hates to be touched (let alone tickled). Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.