David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s documentary Tickled is so crazy that it feels like a hoax. Only it’s not. At least, I don’t think it is. Farrier is a New Zealand TV reporter whose beat is covering quirky human-interest stories—the sort of feel-good local-color oddities that close out news shows with a look at the lighter side. In his search for fresh topics, he stumbled onto a subject that shocked even him: a bizarre online subculture of “competitive endurance tickling.” These weren’t just harmlessly kinky soft-core fetish videos. They were organized, professionally made clips in which young, strapping men were paid to be tied up and tickled in marathon sessions of S&M weirdness. Who were the patrons of these “athletes”? And who exactly was the audience for this “sport”? Farrier needed to know. And what he’d discover would end up sucking him down a rabbit hole of techno-deviance and criminality.
When he approaches the shadowy company behind these videos, he gets a surprising response. He’s not only stonewalled but also personally harassed. His sexual orientation is mocked, and he’s threatened with an avalanche of lawsuits if he digs any deeper. So he picks up his camera and dives in like Michael Moore raiding a sex dungeon. Farrier and his co-director, Reeve, head to the U.S. to confront these cyberbullies and interview a handful of young men desperate for cash whose lives and reputations were destroyed by participating in these events. The further he goes, the freakier it gets, leading up to a 60 Minutes-style confrontation with the tickle ring’s alleged puppet master. As an exposé, Tickled is a compelling, stranger-than-fiction procedural. As a glimpse at the creepier corners of the internet, it’s a sobering snapshot of the dark side of digital anonymity in the 21st century. What starts as silly becomes nothing to laugh at. A–