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Tickled - review

May 23, 2016 Film & TV

A fetish-world exposé by former TV3 reporter David Farrier is not just weird, it’s bloody funny. 

In Tickled, New Zealanders David Farrier and Dylan Reeve go on a journey into the heart of American sleaze, a place where money, power, sex and weirdness curdle into exploitation and abuse. It’s a heck of a lot funnier than it sounds.

We stayed home, but many of us took a journey alongside the filmmakers. You may remember Farrier’s TV3 news reports on the bizarre all-male tickling videos he’d uncovered, the abusively homophobic response when he started digging into the company behind them, and the subsequent fundraising drive to get a feature-length documentary made. The Kickstarter crossed the finish line in part due to Stephen Fry — whose investment was large enough to secure him an associate-producer credit on the film — but largely thanks to hundreds of New Zealanders who wanted to see how this weird little story panned out. After that, we watched as Tickled grew and grew: it was picked up for the Sundance Film Festival, then by HBO, then for worldwide cinema distribution.

And now, finally, we fellow-travellers can see what all the fuss was about.

The vicarious Tickled experience has been both fascinating and cheering, but has the slow drip of information spoiled the film itself? The short answer: not at all. Granted, the twists may be fresher to audiences who have never encountered the dread phrase “competitive endurance tickling”, but there are still plenty of WTF moments for the rest of us. And, no, I won’t give any of them away, except to note that one key identity-revealing discovery had the premiere audience cheering and hollering with surprised delight.

It’s worth pausing to consider just how remarkable the story that Farrier stumbled upon was. There’s the subject matter itself, a mind-scrambling synthesis of the erotic and the absurd, beautifully exemplified by a scene in which fetish entrepreneur Richard Ivey demonstrates his custom-built tickle chair. It starts off jokily, but before long we’re uncomfortably squirming as hard as the buff young tickle victim.

And then there’s Jane O’Brien Media, the US-based production company with a 100 per cent tickle-video slate. Their hostile reaction to Farrier’s initial inquiries leads him to the shadowy star of the film, an identity-shifting sociopath with deep pockets and a talent for blackmail — a supervillain more suited to a megabucks comic-book movie than a crowdfunded indie doco.

Among all this craziness, Farrier is an ideal audience surrogate, approaching the subject with humour, empathy and live-and-let-live humanity. Tickling may be inherently ridiculous, but Farrier never ridicules those who take part in the subculture in good faith. Nor does Tickled play like a 90-minute Newsworthy item, all zany camera angles and arched eyebrows. As the story progresses, Farrier’s ironic remove crumbles. By its climax, he’s genuinely angry about the abusive world he’s stumbled into, as are we.

In cinemas from May 26.

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