An intriguing new documentary pulls back the curtain on an odd topic: online tickling competitions. New Zealand filmmakers David Farrier and Dylan Reeve stumbled across them while researching potential subjects. The out Farrier immediately recognized a "sort of gay" aspect to the allegedly female-produced videos. Little did he realize that what initially looked like an innocent fetish would become all too serious, even life-threatening.
Tickled, opening this weekend in Los Angeles and playing in other cities, is the final result. As the film reveals, there are "tickle cells" all over the US (especially in the midwest) and beyond in which young men are paid sizable amounts of money to either tickle other guys or be tickled themselves. The online videos of these sessions, some of which are more overtly sexual in nature, generate millions of dollars. But when Farrier contacted Jane O'Brien Media, source of the initial batch of videos he discovered, he was shocked to receive an anti-gay reply threatening legal action to stop him from making his documentary.
As Farrier dug deeper, he learned that the true identity of the producer was neither Jane O'Brien nor her 1990's predecessor, Terri DiSisto. Rather, the increasingly virulent responses he was receiving were from one David D'Amato, a closeted, tickling-obsessed former high school assistant principal. While serving time in prison for computer fraud, D'Amato studied law and today occupies a lofty position in his father's law firm.
Farrier finally tracks down and confronts D'Amato on camera, but the documentary takes a long time getting there. There are interesting detours along the way to secret sites where the tickling "competitions" take place as well as interviews with some of their former participants. What becomes glaringly clear is how D'Amato and his underlings consistently prey on gullible young men, some underage, who are desperate for money. In one case, a ticklee agreed to do the videos because he had a family member battling cancer with no health insurance. D'Amato proves to be obsessed with power and control, as his tickling fetish reflects.
Even as a documentary, Tickled will appeal primarily to a niche audience. I do hope, though, that it helps to expose and bring down the "c*nt" (not my word but the word applied to him in the doc by a former participant) D'Amato. Expect Movie Dearest to start receiving excessively-threatening legal notices from one of D'Amato's pseudonynomous representatives.
Also intriguing and unexpectedly good is writer-director Anna Rose Holmer's breakout narrative drama, The Fits (Oscilloscope). It also opens this weekend in Orange County and Pasadena following successful runs in LA and New York. Set amid and among the members of a dancing troupe comprised of African-American girls, it uses dance as both a metaphor for and illustration of adolescent awakening.
The film's protagonist, Toni (an impressive acting debut by young Royalty Hightower), starts out as a wannabe boxer under the tutelage of her older brother. However, she becomes increasingly drawn to the troupe that she watches rehearse each day. Toni begins to mimic their moves but is given pause when some dancers suddenly become stricken by unusual, seizure-like fits. Each girl affected reports different experiences, some of a more spiritual nature. Are they being caused by simple pre-performance jitters, something in the school's drinking water or something more sinister? Or could they be considered the ultimate expression of female empowerment and freedom?
Despite the fact that it doesn't spell out any conclusions, which may frustrate some viewers, The Fits proves to be as focused and determined as Toni. The cinematographer employs lots of long, slow tracking shots not unlike director Stanley Kubrick to heighten both the movement and mystery of the proceedings. The excellent, combat-like choreography by Chariah and Mariah Jones underscores the tension while serving in its impressive own right, especially during the film's finale. Finally, pay special attention to the climactic song that poses the question, "Must we choose to be slaves to gravity?" It may prove key to the whole undertaking.
I have noticed over the last couple years, as both a critic and LGBT film festival programmer, that so many LGBT movies being produced nowadays are downers. Sure, our community has gained acceptance and garnered greater civil rights. So why are the stories our filmmakers are telling so morose? Does becoming mainstream lead to clinical depression?
From Afar (Strand Releasing), Lorenzo Vigas' new movie opening today in LA, proves to be the latest illustration of this. It begins with the beating of a middle-aged gay orthodontist, masochistically played by Alfredo Castro, by a 17-year old hustler he has picked up. Soon after, the hustler (ironically named "Elder" and portrayed by the sultry Luis Silva) recognizes his mark, Armando, as a key to paying for the banged-up car Elder has been fixing up.
He starts to come around more but Armando proves to have his own motivations in encouraging Elder's growing interest. When Elder is himself beaten up by the disapproving brothers of the girl he has been seeing, Armando nurses him back to health. The two establish an emotional bond once they reveal that they were both abused by their fathers. Elder comes to regard Armando as his "buddy" but increasingly finds himself drawn romantically to his decidedly older friend.
There is no denying that the Venezuelan Vigas and his co-writer, Guillermo Arriaga, have created an engrossing and emotionally complex script. Despite their significant age difference, I found myself rooting for Armando and Elder to forge a relationship. I was deeply disappointed therefore, without giving too much away, by the movie's dramatically surprising but downbeat ending. While I don't deny that there ought to be darker takes on the LGBT experience and relationships, please join me in praying they don't become the norm.
The Fits: B+
From Afar: B-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.