Last week, I said that Swiss Army Man was the damnedest thing I’d ever seen, and that’s still largely true. But this week it has some definite competition in the form of Tickled. What initially appears to be a pretty standard slice of pop cultural internet-era navel-gazing turns into a complex crime drama that challenges credulity by virtue of its sheer surrealism. The whole thing is delivered with a decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone. But, despite its sense of humor, audiences are unlikely to make it to the end without being thoroughly creeped out.
It’s difficult to explain this film’s impact and appeal without revealing its major twist(s). Even though in all likelihood you’ll see those twists coming from a mile away, it’s probably best to avoid plot summary here. It should suffice to say that, while Tickled might superficially appear to be an exploration of an obscure fetish, the sexual component is the least interesting part of the story. New Zealand-based TV journalist David Farrier has built a career on exploring outlandish human interest stories (he interviewed Justin Bieber, after all), but nothing could have prepared him for the seedy world of legal intrigue, identity theft, financial malfeasance, sophisticated cyber attacks on the White House and rampant acts of hypocritical homophobia committed by the makers of a quirky internet video. The breadth of influence this fetish ring has been able to achieve (they have “tickle cells” around the world), the destructive fury it unleashes on participants after their involvement and the specific details revealed about the perpetrators are staggering to say the least.
This is a movie hailing exclusively from the post-Michael Moore school of documentary filmmaking, meaning that traditional notions of journalistic ethics and objectivity were checked at the door. While this lack of objectivity on the part of the filmmakers would typically undermine a documentarian’s credibility, in this case it is not only understandable but necessary to the film. First-time feature directors Farrier and Dylan Reeve insert themselves in the story at every turn, due largely to their subjects’ very personal threats of litigation against them. Rather than passive observation, Ferrier and Reeve’s approach is to actively ambush their subjects, surreptitiously record them and use every means at their disposal to catch the party or parties responsible with their pants down. And, against all conventional wisdom, it is this lack of distance that enables the film to play better as a piece of journalism than it might have otherwise. It should be apparent at this point that the entire enterprise works in spite of its disregard for journalistic integrity for the sole reason that the subject in question is infinitely more reprehensible than the filmmakers themselves. By the end of Tickled, the audience is so invested in the duo’s efforts to hold the grotesquely flawed entity behind these videos accountable that almost any transgression on the part of the documentarians could be forgiven so long as it successfully exposes the corrupt underbelly of competitive tickling.
The only thing that makes the truths uncovered by the filmmakers palatable is their unremitting sardonicism. More importantly, this gallows humor bears a level of self-awareness that is thoroughly engaging. After all, how seriously can the audience be expected to take all of this when one of the directors responsible for the tickle clips describes the audition process as consisting of “test tickles”? (You might have to say that out loud to get the joke.) The film delves into such a dark and twisted corner of the human experience that humor may in fact be the only appropriate coping mechanism. Farrier and Reeve never decry the sexuality behind these videos, but they are less flummoxed by their existence than by the extreme lengths to which those behind them would go to achieve their very specific form of gratification. It’s not the sexual proclivities of whoever made these films that concerns them, it’s the decades of systematic abuse that surrounded their production and the seeming unimpeachability of those responsible.
I screened Tickled with a friend who was actively opposed to the prospect on the basis of the film’s subject matter. Within the first 20 minutes, he was completely and utterly transfixed. Tickled is the perfect train-wreck film, one that profoundly disturbs the audience and yet leaves them incapable of looking away. What could have been a simple blog post about a risible fetish, soon to be forgotten among the detritus of internet journalism, inconceivably becomes one of the most compelling pieces of activist filmmaking in recent memory. And it manages to lead the audience seamlessly through such an unexpected transition. While you may have more than a few laughs watching Tickled — not all of them comfortable, mind you — the story at its core is no laughing matter. Rated R for language.
Now showing at Grail Moviehouse