David Farrier is an entertainment TV journalist for 3 News and Nightline in New Zealand, the sort of work that attracts oddball activities and exotic people. Not exactly hard-hitting journalism, but Farrier is hard-working, and like a dog with a bone, Farrier gets to the bottom of what he is looking for.

If only Debbie at Jane O’Brien Media knew that, maybe she wouldn’t have been so nasty when Farrier requested an interview. She wouldn’t have piqued his curiosity, and her secret would still be safe. But no, she had to go an insult Farrier, his sexuality, and his profession. Continually harass him until Farrier had no choice but to go digging.

Oddly enough, what set this investigation in motion was an online competitive tickling video. One man voluntarily strapped down and then tickled by another man. Then, multiple men. It’s not explicitly sexual, but it is bizarre. Enough to get Farrier asking some questions: Who are these people? Where do they come from? How did they get involved? Why? Who pays them? Where does that money come from? And, most importantly, what does the payer get out of all of this?

All roads led back to Jane O’Brien Media, who had registered multiple domain names related to tickling through a German web host. The more Farrier dug, the more fascinating the fall down the rabbit hole looked, and Farrier brought on friend and documentarian Dylan Reeve to capture it all on camera.

Tickled is the fruits of their labor, and it is unbelievably engrossing and fascinating. In another decade, this story would have been ripe for a TV investigative program; but in 2016, film festivals, art-house cinemas, and VOD are where Tickled must go. And that’s for the better. The investigative documentary relates to investigative journalism much in the same way a blogger relates to a reporter. The form is looser, freer, more personal, all of which work in Tickled’s favor.

Tickled is not an aesthetically adventurous project, but Farrier and Dylan manage to situate their cameras in inventive places and capture moments that others may have overlooked—e.g., inside a coffee cup or in one rather eye-catching transition, on a TSA conveyor belt. These moments add just enough to the project, which is so bizarre and cockamamie that Tickled doesn’t exactly need them, but their inclusion does enhance the experience.

Tickled also manages to elongate its suspense effectively. While Farrier and Reeve travel to America in hopes of tracking down the person behind Jane O’Brien Media, they talk to reporters who have followed similar trails, a couple of the subjects who agreed to participate in the tickle videos, and multiple legal representatives. Their focus is ultimately to find the figure behind Jane O’Brien, but they are also interested in the people who both create and consume tickle videos. The internet is ripe is with fetish videos, but here is one that simultaneously exercises dominance, submission, sexuality, and gentle silliness.

But Tickled isn’t all fun and games. As Ferrier and Reeves learn, there are some truly sick people in this world, and not just because they like to watch strangers get tickled—those people are just fine and dandy. No, the sick people are those who exploit others to make themselves feel superior. As Ferrier tells the camera early on, he can’t stand a bully. And there is nothing worse than a bully with money.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Tickled (2016)
Directed by: David Farrier & Dylan Reeve
Produced by: Carthew Neal
Starring: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, David Starr, Hal Karp
Magnolia Pictures, Rated R, Running time 92 minutes, Opens July 1, 2016