Journalist David Farrier thought he was onto a goofy, fun little story when he stumbled on an online video of a new sport called "competitive tickling" that showed four young men tickling a fifth into submission.
There was also a call for entries that promised would-be tickling athletes $1,500 and free room and board in Los Angeles for participating in the contest.
A New Zealand reporter and documentary filmmaker who specializes in the odd and the weird, Farrier was fascinated and he reached out to the company that produced the vid.
Jane O'Brien Media replied in a strange, hostile missive informing the openly gay Farrier that they refused to have any "association with a homosexual journalist."
So Farrier did what came naturally as a reporter: pursue the story. He filed blog posts filled with questions and one fascinating revelation. It seemed that Jane O'Brien Media was one of more than 300 ticking sites around the world operated by a German company.
The company filed a lawsuit. Farrier's story became Tickled, the film.
Co-directed by frequent Farrier collaborator Dylan Reeve, the strange, unnerving doc (itself now the subject of a defamation lawsuit) connects dots suggesting that Jane O'Brien Media is part of a multi-million dollar global firm that produces videos for the soft-core tickling fetish market.
Farrier and Reeve push on: Who owns this global company?
Tickled nicely builds up to its climax by laying out an Ariadne's thread from Farrier's naive initial report. It's fun, exciting, freakish filmmaking.
So, is there a tickling fetish kingpin sitting on a pile of cash somewhere, recruiting subjects for tickling fetish videos via competitive tickling contests? I won't ruin it for you.
Farrier and Reeve expend enormous effort to find out because the people they suspect of making money off the videos have set up numerous front companies and enlisted a pack of rabid attorneys.
The filmmakers consult a variety of sources, including Philly journalist and former Inquirer wine writer Deborah Scoblionkov, who covered a strange computer-fraud case involving one "TerriTickle" for the City Paper in the late 1990s and early 2000's.
Despite the extensive research, Tickled is flawed: Farrier doesn't bother to explain a heap of pertinent information, including the grounds on which the original lawsuit was filed. He holds back bits of information that better explain the ongoing story, only to spring it on us later in gotcha! moments that feel forced.
He should have trusted that the material was strange enough to captivate the audience.
This brings us to a more fundamental problem: Is weirdness alone grounds for a feature film? So what if there's a market for tickling fetish videos? And really, should we be shocked their makers use questionable business practices?
Farrier and Reeve never really tell us why we should care.
sss (Out of four stars)
yDirected by David Farrier, Dylan Reeve. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
yRunning time: 1 hour, 32 mins.
yParent's guide: R (profanity).
yPlaying at: Ritz at the Bourse.