(Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

No documentary generated more breathless buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival than Tickled, which begins as a lighthearted look at the alleged sport of “competitive endurance tickling” and gradually turns into something much more disturbing. The folks in Park City who raved about the film’s unpredictable twists and turns, however, seem to have led pretty sheltered lives. Very little of what New Zealand-based directors David Farrier and Dylan Reeve uncover in Tickled—from the true nature of the tickling competitions to the real identity of the individual behind them—should surprise any viewer who possesses an ounce of common sense and workaday cynicism. Still, investigative journalism doesn’t need to be gasp-driven, and Farrier and Reeve did stumble onto a story well worth telling, one that reveals just how easy it is for a wealthy, anonymous sexual and emotional sadist to ruin people’s lives via the internet.

For Farrier, a journalist who generally covers offbeat human-interest stories in Auckland, the original plan was just to conduct a quick interview with someone at Jane O’Brien Media, a company he’d found that produces videos of athletic young men tickling other (bound) athletic young men, ostensibly as a sport. The email reply from a Jane O’Brien employee named Debbie, however, consists entirely of homophobic insults (Farrier is openly gay), and both Debbie and Jane herself are soon contacting Farrier obsessively, tossing slurs and threatening lawsuits. Predictably, this only makes him more curious about what the hell is going on, to the point where he and Reeve fly to Los Angeles and stake out one of the company’s tickling shoots. A former participant tells them of watching helplessly, mortified, as the videos he made, along with his personal information, appeared all over the web years later, turning up in Google searches and costing him potential jobs. Eventually, the filmmakers follow the trail back to a woman named Terri DiSisto, a.k.a. Terri Tickle, who was engaged in suspiciously similar activity back in the ’90s.

Subsequent revelations about Debbie/Jane/Terri are (or should be) entirely predictable. Tickled itself drops the other shoe fairly quickly, and shouldn’t be blamed for the Sundance-generated hype (“Countless twists too juicy to spoil,” etc.). The film’s real problem is that Farrier and Reeve never manage to penetrate very far into the perpetrator’s secretive world, and can only reach feature length by padding things out. A mid-film visit with a man who runs an unrelated website devoted to male-male tickling, for example, both states the abundantly obvious—that Jane O’Brien’s “competitive endurance tickling” is disguised fetish porn—and struggles to make this rather ordinary fetish seem much stranger than it actually is. (As the porn merchant observes, it’s really just BDSM-lite; if you want to be baffled by what turns some people on, there’s way weirder shit out there than this.) And the best the filmmakers can do by way of a climax is a brief, unilluminating scene in which they confront their subject on the street and get totally stonewalled.

All the same, Tickled does shine a much-needed light on that individual’s long history of abusive behavior, which has resulted in only a light slap on the wrist, thanks to inherited wealth and the power it confers. What’s most interesting about this case is that the tickling videos, while certainly produced in order to serve as jerk-off material, are arguably just phase one in a much larger campaign of control and humiliation—not unlike the weird sexual satisfaction that apparently motivated the dude who used to call random fast-food restaurants and talk managers into strip-searching employees over the phone (as recounted in Compliance). Unlike ordinary porn sites, Jane O’Brien Media doesn’t make any money by selling its videos—indeed, the person behind the company spends a small fortune on this “hobby.” It’s hard to believe just how much money, time, and energy has been expended, in cities across America and around the world (there are numerous “tickling cells” run by well-paid confederates), to gratify the sadistic urges of one twisted soul. If Tickled puts a halt to the operation, it will have achieved something of lasting value.

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