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Film review: "Tickled" 

No laughing matter

In the wildly entertaining documentary "Tickled," what begins as a light-hearted look into a ridiculous pastime slowly transforms into something strange and altogether disturbing. New Zealand-based pop culture reporter David Farrier has made a career out of fluffy stories focusing on "the weird and bizarre side of life." The film's introduction includes brief clips from past stories on subjects like eels, black metal, and Justin Bieber. So when he stumbles across a website promoting the sport of "Competitive Endurance Tickling," it sounds like just the sort of quirky human-interest story that would be right up his alley. After a bit of research, he sends an inquiry to Jane O'Brien Media, the company who owns the tickling site (as well as a plethora of other similarly themed pages). The response he receives is unexpected to say the least.

Farrier soon gets an email from a woman named Debbie, who claims to be a representative of Jane O'Brien Media. The email doesn't just refuse to participate in any interview, it also threatens legal action and insults his sexuality, saying that the company wishes to have no "association with a homosexual journalist," going on to call him "gay kiwi" and much worse. It seems an odd response, especially considering that the "sport" -- with its amateurishly shot footage of buff young men rubbing, writhing, and straddling one another -- seems, well, pretty gay.

Days go by, and Farrier continues to receive constant emails from Debbie and Jane herself, all laced with homophobic slurs, insults, and threats. But like any decent journalist, these threats serve only to pique Farrier's interest further. Refusing to give in to the bullying tactics, the reporter continues to pursue the subject.

With co-director Dylan Reeve, Farrier decides this all might make for an interesting documentary, even when three more employees from Jane O'Brien Media are flown in from Los Angeles and threaten the filmmakers with lawsuits, vehement about shutting the story down. None admit to having ever actually met Jane, and they immediately bristle at the appearance of the filmmaker's cameras. And things just get weirder from there.

The rest of "Tickled" unfolds like a crime-thriller. Farrier and Reeve travel to America in an attempt to uncover who exactly is behind the mysterious Jane O'Brien Media, and the duo discover a pattern of litigious and abusive behavior that includes identity theft, cyber bullying, fraud, and blackmail which appears to span decades. They find that Jane O'Brien has a pattern of reaching out to desperate young men from poor neighborhoods all across the country, roping them in with all-expenses-paid trips to Los Angeles, thousands of dollars in compensation, and various gifts in an effort to recruit the men into so-called "tickle cells."

The filmmakers manage to convince a few former participants to talk to them, and all tell similarly harrowing stories. If any ever decide to leave the business, or dare to ask that the videos in which they've appeared removed, things quickly turn nasty.

In addition to harassing calls and letters sent to their families, many of the men (in some cases just boys) find that their videos -- along with their personal information -- have been posted all across the internet, causing them humiliation at school, costing them jobs, and in one case even leading to a visit from the secret service. With seemingly limitless resources, the mysterious figure behind Jane O'Brien has built an empire on the backs of these young men, exploiting them, shaming them, and ruining their lives.

At their heart, the tickling websites are selling viewers a milder form of bondage porn. Richard Ivey, founder of another line of tickling websites, admits as much when talking to Reeves and Farrier. Appearing healthy and well-adjusted, Ivey allows us to see a less insidious side of the business. Unlike Jane O'Brien, Ivey's open about his fetish, and is more than happy to talk on camera about his predilections. It suggests that shame and repression about one's sexuality can quickly curdle into something toxic and dangerous.

The story inside "Tickled" is absolutely bonkers, and the film ranks alongside "Weiner" as the year's best "I can't believe what I'm seeing" documentary. But the film goes beyond simple entertainment and becomes an intriguing investigation into the privilege of being rich in America.

Its ideas have a certain urgency in the age of Peter Thiel and Donald Trump, where experience suggests that as long as you've got enough money and a hunger for power and control, it's easy to bend the rest of the world to your will. With a layer of anonymity, the internet provides the cover to get away with anything, to the extent that it becomes horrifyingly simple for an ambitious sadist to destroy lives simply for their pleasure.

Check back on Thursday for additional film coverage, including a review of the documentary, "Nuts!"

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