TICKLED is a documentary uniquely designed to subvert the expectations of its viewers. It begins with a lighthearted, almost whimsical premise – David Farrier, an entertainment journalist in New Zealand, stumbles across videos online that showcase “competitive endurance tickling”. It seems almost too bizarre to be real, and so Farrier decides to write a story on the “sport”. But when his request for an interview with a representative from Jane O’Brien Media (the source of the tickling videos) is declined, and the response is filled with legal threats and homophobic slurs, Farrier discovers that he has stumbled upon something much more sinister – a faceless organization that preys on young men through threats, blackmail, and coercion.

TICKLED is a totally engrossing and compelling documentary. Within the first ten minutes, I was glued. The story seems unbelievable – and the twists and turns just continue to get more and more crazy as the story continues to unfold. The documentary uncovers a web of lies that run so deep it will make viewers uncomfortable. It includes awkward confrontations, hidden recordings, and all the other trappings of compelling investigative journalism.

It’s interesting to see that Farrier plays such a large role in TICKLED. Typically, documentary filmmakers are behind the camera. But in the case of TICKLED, it makes sense. What makes this story so compelling isn’t the existence of competitive endurance tickling. It’s the personal threats, looming legal action, and insults that Jane O’Brien Media hurls at Farrier that give this film weight. The constant threat of Farrier’s investigation being shut down and possible harm coming to him and his loved ones makes TICKLED all the more compelling.

The documentary, however, isn’t perfect. In the essence of time, a lot of Farrier’s research is left on the cutting room floor. We are introduced to new people, but there’s not really a sense of how Farrier was able to find these people. There’s some superfluous stuff in there too – like Farrier’s interview with a different tickling fetishist. It provides for some uncomfortable viewing moments, but it doesn’t add anything to the overarching story being told. The ending is somewhat unsatisfactory after the film’s intense buildup – but I recognize that clean resolution isn’t something typically found in documentaries.

The tagline for TICKLED is, “It’s not what you think”. Honestly, that simple tagline really sums it up. This isn’t a story about competitive endurance tickling – it’s about power, deceit, and the disgusting underbelly of society that the anonymity provided by the internet allows to flourish.

Tickled is available for streaming on HBO.