About half an hour into the queasily entertaining documentary "Tickled," we're introduced to a Florida man named Richard Ivey, who runs a lucrative video website catering to those who share his highly specific fetish. Describing the art of tickling as a milder form of sexual bondage, with feathers and toothbrushes in lieu of whips and chains, Ivey proceeds to give a handy demonstration on camera. He runs his fingertips all over the chest, armpits and feet of a handsome, heavily tattooed young man — who, being tied down, can respond only with bodily contortions and uncontrollable giggles, punctuated by cries of "Stop!" and "I hate this!"
You'll be pleased to learn (or not) that this spectacle of tee-hee torture is not the true subject of "Tickled." Directed by the New Zealand-based filmmakers David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, the movie draws you in with its eyebrow-raising look at an erotic subculture, then quickly escalates into a harrowing tale of alleged identity theft, online intimidation and American privilege gone dangerously awry. It's a measure of the film's subversiveness that by the time Ivey appears, he seems a model of sanity and stability: His proclivities may be pretty out there, but he discusses them happily and without shame, and he has placed them in service of an honest living.
Jane O'Brien, the head of another online tickling empire, Jane O'Brien Media, is another story. O'Brien never appears on-screen, instead sending a barrage of legal threats and harshly worded emails — all directed at the filmmakers, with repeated orders that they cease and desist. But Farrier and Reeve keep on filming, determined to get to the heart of a business that they contend has left a trail of ruined reputations, careers and lives in its wake.
The project was set in motion when Farrier, a New Zealand-based pop-culture reporter and connoisseur of everyday human weirdness, received a tip about a sport known as "competitive endurance tickling" and, stumbling on Jane O'Brien Media's online videos, reached out to the company in hopes of doing a story. An O'Brien rep, responding via a social media post, not only rebuffed him but attacked his sexual orientation, claiming they did not want any "association with a homosexual journalist" — never mind the overtly homoerotic nature of the videos, with their images of well-muscled hunks being straddled and tickled by as many as two or three guys at a time.
That first verbal volley convinced Farrier and his friend Reeve, a TV editor and post-production supervisor, that they might have a documentary on their hands. Failed attempts to negotiate with three Jane O'Brien Media executives, who came to meet them in New Zealand and left in a huff, only seemed to confirm their hunch. And so they traveled to the U.S., interviewing past associates and tracking the company's operations from Los Angeles, where its studios are based, to New York, where its headquarters lie.
Of the hundreds of young men nationwide who have agreed to appear in the company's videos, lured by the promise of a hefty paycheck and a free trip to L.A., only one proves willing to talk on camera. The portrait that emerges from his account is of young men, many of them still teenagers, who submit to a few hours of tickling for a quick buck, and then come to regret their decision.
Smoothly shot and edited despite its handheld paranoid-thriller style, "Tickled" was one of the more talked-about premieres at this January's Sundance Film Festival, where it played to rapt audiences that included at least one Jane O'Brien Media employee. In March, Farrier was hit with a defamation lawsuit by a person with the O'Brien operation who is named on screen and directly confronted in the documentary's gripping final scenes.
I'll leave that identity undisclosed here, so as not to spoil the outcome of Farrier and Reeve's movie. But spoilers would be less of an issue if there were more, in the end, to "Tickled" – if it went beyond a mere revelation of identity to explore the broader culture of Internet impunity that it holds responsible.
By the end you may feel moderately relieved and more than a little creeped out, but you may also wish that this undeniably compelling documentary had done more than lightly brush the surface.
MPAA rating: R for language
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes