FILM REVIEW: “Tickled” is no laughing matter

This unpredictable documentary follows a New Zealand journalist as he investigates a bizarre tickling-video subculture

It’s hard to think of a more thrilling cinematic experience than watching a movie narrative constantly evolve and change shape. That’s even more true in nonfiction, where a filmmaker may start with a simple premise or subject, then realize, typically through sheer coincidence and dumb luck, that they’ve stumbled onto a much larger or weirder tale than they could ever have imagined. “The Imposter,” “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” “My Kid Could Paint That,” “Capturing The Friedmans” are a few great examples of truth being far stranger than fiction; they start as one thing and became something else entirely by the end.

A similar mutation occurs in “Tickled,” a new documentary opening at Hollywood Theatre on Friday, July 8, and if these kinds of movies are your cup of tea, look no further. Surely you won’t see what’s coming.

David Farrier, Richard Ivey, and a tickle subject in TICKLED, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

David Farrier, Richard Ivey, and a tickle subject in TICKLED, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Ostensibly it’s about a New Zealand reporter who stumbles onto the world of competitive tickling (which is a thing, believe it or not), but what directors David Farrier and Dylan Reeve instead find is a much darker, mysterious and bizarre web of deceit and bully tactics. I hesitate to explain further because the real joy of this film is tagging along with the filmmakers, who are also the lead characters, as they peel back each layer of the story. Describing any more is a slippery slope. Competitive tickling, where young men are hired to participate in group tickle fetish videos, could probably sustain an entire film on its own, but here it’s merely a window into another, more complicated, story.

We are living in an incredibly exciting era of documentary filmmaking. The proliferation of cheap equipment and the rise of the Internet has allowed for the genre to enter a golden age of sorts. Be it with form-busting mind-blowers like “The Act Of Killing;” you-are-there, previously impossible adventure footage like “Meru;” or the narrative twists of “Tickled” and everything in between–if you haven’t seen a good doc recently you’re just not looking hard enough.

On a technical level, there’s not a lot to champion. The videography is standard and efficient, capturing the story on the fly but with little chance for fussed-over beauty. Many of the soundtrack cuts will be familiar to anybody who fell hard (like me) for Shane Carruth’s brilliant 2013 film “Upstream Color.” That score works fine plugged into this movie because it’s so goddamn beautiful, but it’s tonally way off the mark in comparison. There’s also a sense by the end of “Tickled” that the story will never truly be resolved. The final, deeply sad ten minutes offer some form of conclusion and at least one (highly subjective) explanation, but the story is left dangling in a way that made me wish the filmmakers had stuck it out a little longer.

There are things that happen in “Tickled” that made me question whether or not it’s even a good idea to write this review and recommend the film. You’ll know what I mean when you’ve seen it. Alas, it’s worth whatever repercussions may come my way. Accept the mystery and you won’t be disappointed.

(“Tickled” opens Friday, July 8, at The Hollywood Theatre) GRADE: B+

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