Sages in a Spinning World: A Review of Netflix’s The Speed Cubers
The Speed Cubers, which premiered on Netflix today, is a moving, sometimes heart-breaking, and yet, hopeful meditation on friendship, skill, passion and fame. It is, somewhat surprisingly, also a potent antidote for the profoundly disconnected and anxious times we are living in now.
The subject of The Speed Cubers is also, of course, speed cubing; the small but growing culture of children, teens (and some adults) who solve Rubik’s Cubes with ever faster record speeds.
As we waited for this documentary eagerly during the past few months (I should qualify though that my enthusiasm comes from being a cuber-dad rather than a cuber myself), my expectation somehow was that this would be a suspenseful “who wins a contest” story along the lines of the spelling bee documentaries and movies we have seen before.
Not Your Spelling Bee Movie
I should add that I was also somewhat familiar with the main figures of the speed cubing world thanks to YouTube and an ever active community that is keeping the fingers flying and timers thumping through online contests during the lockdown. I also knew a bit of a backstory about the two legendary cubers who are the focus of this documentary, Feliks Zemdegs and Max Park (there is another documentary available on You Tube too that is quite good called Why We Cube, which is a nice story by the community about itself, and gives us an insight into well, why they cube!)
But The Speed Cubers turns out to be something much, much deeper than that. Director Sue Kim has told a story that even those of us in the cuber-parent world probably did not know, or at least, experience, as deeply as we did until now. Here’s why.
Feliks Zemdegs was the world champion for many years, until Max Park came along and began to beat his world records. In this documentary, we see them meeting for the World Championships being held in Australia in 2019, and our expectation, as in any documentary, is basically to see what happened, and maybe a bit of backstage insight and drama (and of course, for cubers, the expectation is much higher because this is a movie about them, and the first movie about cubing going out on a major global platform like Netflix at that).
A Tender but Mighty Heart
While I knew a bit about Feliks and Max from Why We Cube, what turned out to be the centerpiece of this documentary is the heart-shredding beauty of the relationship between them. Nothing less. That is the tender, yet so mighty, heart of The Speed Cubers.
Felix is the old champion, the legend, the cuber who became famous when he was still just a kid. His parents speak about what it felt like to suddenly become media managers, and I could see a little bit of what this world has come to mean for parents too. There is the standard parents-supporting-children’s activities role, and then, there is, well, something more too, something that comes to life here vividly.
Max was diagnosed with autism when he was very young. His father tells us about how he sensed that something was not right even when he was a baby, and then, the helplessness and grief he and his mother felt. He lets us feel that intimate moment with them, and then tells us about how they made up their minds with calm determination to face the situation as parents from that moment on. And among many challenges they faced, Max did not have the kind of motor skills one could take for granted.
And this is the Max who solves the cube which probably takes you and me forever (and mostly never) under five seconds today!
Cubing turned out to be something that Max really liked to do, got very good at, and most importantly, also learned to engage with others through. We get to see wonderful home movie footage of Max in one of his early competitions, responding, pointing at other participants, doing the small things many of us take for granted.
Cubers are a community, a kind one, and that comes through in the movie. And they are children, many of them. How did they find each other? How did they find this cube, and the magic they perform with it? I wonder, and admire.
It is nice to see parents, children, and community that I have seen so well these last few months depicted here, but the heart of the movie, the heart-shredder (in a good way), I was totally moved by, is the friendship between Feliks and Max.
I will not do a spoiler with details, but when you watch this, if you pay attention to these two young men, and each of their small interactions, you will see something truly profound happening, or at least something that seems truly profound to me as a teacher and a parent.
Feliks loves Max. Like a younger brother. One champion to another. “Fiercely competitive,” as we might think, is one part of it, but probably the least important part of it. What is really important though is the connection that these two boys, young men now, one in Australia and one in California, have with each other, and the deep understanding that Feliks seems to have about what he is to Max. That maturity, or empathy, if you will, is beautiful. And what Max sees in Feliks, these are things that speak most in the language of silence perhaps, the language that a writer who knows when not to assume any more power for his words surrenders to and surrenders into.
Max and Feliks. Brothers. Friends. Cubers. Speed Cubers.
I dare you to not cry when you watch this.
A Steady Core in a Spinning World
The analytical what-if question though is of course whether this story would have felt as moving as it did at a different time, had we not been stuck at home, separated and isolated and worried, feeling trapped in a global pandemic with no solution in sight, and ever more divisiveness and anger and cynicism all around. I don’t know.
But it seems just right to me that a modest documentary about a small subculture of dedicated cubers has put so much love and meaning packed into it.
It’s a mad world we have been caught up in for so long now. We think of work, school, and even games and sports as little more than a winner takes all, survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, rat race (I think I covered all of the phrases right there). It wasn’t always this way though. This is a period of world history that began with popular social Darwinism and the industrial revolution and has probably and finally reached its limits in more ways than one now; globalization, trade, travel, pandemic, racism, terror, war…
At this time, we must not lose hope. We must not lose truth. And what this documentary has expressed, is really a truth that is more urgent than anything else going around on television these days, in fiction or non-fiction. It is the truth of connection, the truth of love.
Interestingly, the theme of connection also played out (although in a somewhat voyeuristic fashion) in another Netflix series recently too. In Indian Matchmaking, young men and women caught between tradition and modernity, individualism and community, the present and the future, turned to an elder with skill and finesse and social capital to help make their lives complete. That is one dilemma for many in the modern world too, and one slightly inadequate solution.
But for children at home today, and their parents, the world of these spinning layers, dazzling solves, and ever shrinking millisecond speed records, are the signs by which love is still finding its way forward in this world. Whether you are a cuber, or a cuber-parent, or someone who just wants to watch a truly inspiring movie about friendship and intelligence and the inseparability of the two, you will appreciate The Speed Cubers.