In a stark white room, four boys huddle on a mattress, addressing the camera. They’re athletic, the picture of youth and every Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. A blond boy says, “We want to thank Jane O’Brien Media for this opportunity,” and they all smile and wave. They’re about to take part in something dubbed “Competitive Endurance Tickling,” and they seem willing participants. One boy is strapped into chains at his ankles and wrists while another tickles his underarms. The others join in, straddling him at the waist, manning his feet, wriggling fingers along his bare belly, and you think, “Oh, great, this is some creepy video from deeply closeted Christian kids.” But this is the exact video New Zealand journalist David Farrier stumbled upon before embarking on a strange investigative journey for his documentary Tickled, which would take him all over the United States, tracking down an elusive woman who has endless cash, an empire of tickle-fetish videos and a penchant for revenge.
Farrier’s simple request to Jane O’Brien Media asking for more information about the purported “sport” of tickling depicted in the video is met with a homophobic all-caps rant calling out “gay kiwis.” That only stokes Farrier’s curiosity, so he and co-director Dylan Reeve decide to make a doc, going far down the rabbit hole of Jane O’Brien’s psyche and finding a story that might have played as even scarier if it weren't filtered through Farrier's genial humility.
Nobody has met O’Brien, but high-powered thugs are at the ready to bring Farrier down with costly lawsuits and ridiculous threats (“You will be dealt with”) — and that’s nothing compared with what O’Brien has done to others.
An athlete named T.J. reveals in an interview that he was paid $2,000 to appear in a video just like the one Farrier first watched. T.J. and company were told Jane O’Brien was doing private research to see if tickling could be used as a military tactic. When O’Brien released the video, T.J. asked for it to be taken down, but all he got in response was an all-out trolling attack to ruin his life. Other men — victims on video and former associates of O’Brien’s — talk about robocalls targeting friends and family with accounts of deranged fantasies ascribed to the tickled. One associate shows a Hallmark greeting card his mother received that says, “Bet you wish it was your other son who died” — referencing the victim’s dead brother. Another was falsely embroiled in an attack on the White House.
Around every corner, Farrier unearths something more sinister — it’s a total mindfuck to watch it unfold. He and Reeve don’t just document, they report, offering evidence of the guilt and innocence of those involved. (That's why Farrier's still getting served with papers at every screening of the film.) O’Brien’s web of harassment is presented as so far-reaching in Tickled that anyone who touches the topic is subject to abuse. One victim states that he got harassing phone calls from a number in Jamaica; as I watched that scene, a Jamaican number lit up my phone, and I wasn’t so sure it was just a coincidence. I hope it was.
Tickled is sometimes reminiscent of Alex Gibney’s Scientology takedown Going Clear, because of the harassment the filmmakers endured for trying to uncover the truth about bizarre organizations. Gibney knew what he was up against, and his doc was doing the work to prove its long-standing allegations. Farrier and Reeves’ doc differs, as they’re only discovering these atrocities along the way. They’re as surprised as the audience is. For all they knew, Tickled easily could have been a weird little piece of ephemera, but instead it evolved into a deeply felt crime thriller you have to see to believe.