'Speed Cubers' review: Affecting, surprisingly profound documentary
DOCUMENTARY "The Speed Cubers"
WHERE Streaming on Netflix.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT "The Speed Cubers" depicts the close friendship and rivalry of champion Rubik's Cube solvers Max Park and Feliks Zemdegs, who collectively have set and broken a multitude of records in the art of speedcubing.
It explores the back stories of the American Park and Australian Zemdegs during the run-up to the World Cube Association's 2019 championships in Melbourne, Australia. The 40-minute documentary is directed by Sue Kim and now streaming on Netflix.
MY SAY It's fair to wonder whether there's enough to the art of speedcubing to sustain even this brief running time. Solving a Rubik's Cube in a matter of mere seconds is a noteworthy talent, undeniably impressive, and — let's be honest — not that interesting.
Once you've seen it happen the first time, and marveled at the extraordinary ease with which these competitors master the 3-D puzzle that has been a source of frustration for so many, you don't really need to see it again.
Sure, this milieu could be good fodder for a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, and there's probably room for a deeper dive into the history of the cube and how it became so ubiquitous.
It's a testament to the quality of the filmmaking here that "The Speed Cubers" transforms from the depiction of people with a niche skill into an emotionally affecting story of friendship. The filmmaker identifies a narrative that's far more interesting and complicated than the easy route of focusing solely on the novelty value.
Feliks is an icon in this universe, now in his early 20s and contemplating life after speedcubing. Max is the teen challenger who has swept in and seized the mantle. The new champion idolizes the master and rather than resent having to pass the torch, the latter treats his newfound competitor with deep kindness and respect.
Max's parents describe how speedcubing opened up a world of new possibilities for their son, who has autism, and offer vivid testimony to the impact of his close friendship with Feliks.
Various records are set and then fall as the filmmaker builds up to the 2019 championship, not only on the famous 3x3x3 puzzle, but also in one-handed competitions and more.
The picture offers some insight into the algorithms involved in quickly solving these things, but the explanation went right over the head of this layman reviewer. And, yes, it is jaw-dropping to watch people solve them instantaneously without even using both hands.
But this is a documentary about competitors that shifts the focus away from winning and losing and toward a portrayal of mutual respect. There's wisdom in the way it contextualizes the competition as being noteworthy as an impetus for personal growth, rather than a portrait of this community pursuing a very specific passion.
The best scenes in the movie depict Feliks simply being a good-hearted person, supporting and encouraging his rival even as his ascendance signifies the end of an era.
Kim captures something fundamental about the cyclical nature of excelling at any physical endeavor: you can't stay on top forever. With grace and humility, Felix cedes his ground to Max and wonders what's next. Max himself finds his own dominance eventually challenged. But there's always another puzzle to be solved.
BOTTOM LINE This is an affecting and surprisingly profound documentary that, over the course of just 40 minutes, transcends the novelty value of its subject.