Review: Tickled (Farrier & Reeve, 2016) – Sundance 2016


A conspiracy involving tickling? A nefarious tickling industrial complex? Are you sure we’re still browsing the documentary section? The desire to find out if this film description was real or just a gag–and, if real, what strangeness the world holds–was just too much to resist.

When self-described “fluff” journalist David Farrier stumbles across a collection of online videos of athletic-looking men tickling each other, he is both titillated and intrigued. (Who wouldn’t be?) The videos describe the sport as “competitive endurance tickling.” Hoping to do a piece on the subject, he reaches out to the owner of the videos, Jane O’Brien Media, seeking an interview or comment.

The response he receives is bizarre and troubling. A series of vicious emails floods his inbox, attacking his journalistic reputation and, strangely, his sexuality. Rather than cowing him, the harassment only increases Farrier’s fascination. Legal threats soon ensue.

By this time, David enlists the help of a tech-savvy friend, Dylan Reeve (the film’s co-director), and the two New Zealanders embark on a surreal journey crisscrossing the U.S. to uncover the menace behind the tickling.

Farrier, who narrates the film, never loses his sense of humor, even when the investigation takes a few harrowing turns. That levity is refreshing in a documentary scene that mostly (and deservedly) focuses on serious topics.

I won’t divulge too much; tunneling to the center of the mystery, uncovering decoy after decoy to get at the true mastermind of the tickling empire (and then trying to peel back even more) is what makes Tickled suspenseful and entertaining. Along the way, the story touches on, but does not explore, some heavier issues–online bullying, flaws in our justice and legal system, economic inequality, and even, obliquely, sexuality, sexism, and sexual identity.

But if, in the end, Tickled seems rather inconsequential against the landscape of documentaries about weightier topics, resign yourself to just enjoying a movie now and then, succumbing to the pleasures of a good old-fashioned whodunnit story–and a real one, to boot.

In a juicy turn, one of the documentary’s “villains” showed up at one of the Sundance screenings–not the one we attended, unfortunately–to take notes and mutter obscenities, according to a viewer’s captivating account (s/he sat next to him). Someone did ponder this possibility at our Q&A session, too (a must-watch, see below).

Others chattered about it on Twitter:


Courtesy of the Tickled Facebook page


In many ways, this story is still unfolding. Jane O’Brien Media may have temporarily suspended legal proceedings, but it’s still actively recruiting ticklers and ticklees, and its tickling videos are still available for all to watch. Stay tuned, or, better yet, go to a screening for a chance to become part of the drama.

Note: If you can’t get enough of David Farrier, read his online diary of his Sundance experience. I laughed out loud through the whole thing.