Tickled – Review (*** 1/2)

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It takes no more than ten minutes for David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s documentary about the peculiar world of “competitive tickling” to take a darkly sinister turn, and so what could have been a bizarre, leering carny show ends up being something much more profound (and much more unsettling).

Without giving away the various twists and turns in this stranger-than-fiction tale, Farrier’s probe into the nature of tickling websites – namely whether there’s a prurient interest – leads him down a rabbit-hole chasing several shadowy, seemingly omnipotent Internet figures bankrolling the worldwide operation. What follows is a tale of power, control, identity, and of course, the dangers of the web.

Though it seems to be all fun and games from the outset, Tickled quickly ramps up the WTF factor, playing up the inherent strangeness of the tickling subculture though not daring to criticise or overtly mock it, before the more unsavoury aspects of that culture come bubbling to the surface.

There’s a fascinating mystery at the center of the narrative – who, exactly, are the seemingly wealthy, powerful women at the center of these “tickling rings”, and what is their precise interest in producing and acquiring these videos? More to the point, as their actions towards both talent and anyone who attempts challenge them become increasingly adversarial – what has led these individuals down this sorry road?

While Farrier and Reeve’s film could certainly delve deeper into the nature of the fetish itself, the tickling aspect is ultimately just the window dressing to explore a deeper issue that could apply to any number of Internet subcultures, driven by the aforementioned mystery element that’s about as engaging as any fictional thriller to hit screens this year.

Curiously, this is also a rare documentary where the filmmaker becoming one of the subjects is not only acceptable but actually preferable; given the bisexual Farrier’s personal closeness to the homophobic sludge trotted out by the people running these sites, he has a distinctly vested interest, and is a highly sympathetic “protagonist” if you like. Unsurprisingly the filmmakers rarely manage to contact young men from the tickling videos (who largely fear reprisals), but the courageous, likeable Farrier fills the void well enough on his own.

Yes, the plentiful voice-over narration often ladles out more subtext than necessary and some of the “twists” are drawn out to the point that the answers become glaringly obvious, but these niggles can do little to diminish the oddball power of this thoroughly compelling, disconcerting treatise on the destructive potential of modern tech.

*** 1/2

Tickled is available now on VOD

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