Sue Kim, director of an Oscar-shortlisted short documentary about competitive Rubik’s Cubers, can solve a complex storytelling puzzle in under 40 minutes.
In The Speed Cubers Kim rotates between two main characters—Australian Feliks Zembegs and American Max Park, two of the fastest to ever solve cubes in competition.
“Feliks is the GOAT in the same way that Michael Jordan is the GOAT. His records may never be broken or no one might ever reach the level of dominance that he reached, but he’s clearly being unseated by Max,” the director tells Deadline. “Max is kind of like LeBron. He’s like the current GOAT, where he’s unbeatable right now, but who knows if he’s going to have the legendary career that Feliks had.”
The Speed Cubers recounts how Zemdegs came to the fore in 2013, winning the World Cube Association World Championship. He repeated in 2015, but two years later Park upset him to take the crown. The documentary builds toward the 2019 Worlds, where Park and Zemdegs readied to go head to head again.
But The Speed Cubers is more than simply a competition movie. It reaches emotional depths by exploring the supportive relationship between the two cubing greats, and the transformative power of that bond for Max, who is on the autism spectrum. For him, Feliks is part idol, part role model.
“They started slowly developing this friendship. I saw it happen before my eyes at the US Nationals [in 2018], where they were clearly the two most favored to win,” Kim recalls. “They were fierce rivals and they so obviously loved each other. They hang out together. Feliks is so kind to Max. He’d always pump him up or bring him into photos. Just seeing that, even from afar, it moved me incredibly.”
That Park can cube at all, let alone at dizzying speed, represents something of a miracle. Many autistic kids struggle with manual dexterity, as did Max.
“The reason why Schwan and Miki, Max’s parents, initially thought to give him a Rubik’s Cube was because he particularly had difficulty with fine motor skills. He couldn’t open a water bottle,” Kim explains. “One of the things that Max is known for more than anybody else is his turning speed…It’s his finger dexterity and his accuracy in turning that puts him heads above everybody else…It’s pretty amazing that he turned that particular obstacle into literally his greatest strength as a competitor.”
Netflix acquired the documentary “at the treatment phase,” Kim says. She had planned to make it a feature, but Netflix execs convinced her a short was the way to go.
“In my mind I had to restructure what I thought the story would have to be if I was going to cut it in half,” Kim tells Deadline. “They zeroed in on Max, Feliks, that storyline, and how unusual and potentially kind of life affirming it was.”
Kim quit her job in advertising to focus full time on making the film. The Speed Cubers is her first documentary, but she came to the subject with a lot of experience—her son Asher is a world-ranked cuber himself.
“We’re friends with all the cubing families. It’s a very, very tight knit community. That’s like our tribe as a family, that’s who we spend time with on the weekends. Very quickly, I knew I wanted to make a documentary about this world, especially the more I got to know it,” Kim shares. “It’s exactly as you see in the film, in that all the kids and adults are so incredibly kind and decent to each other, and the level of sportsmanship and just goodwill, I’ve never seen. I’ve never stumbled across a universe so decent and wholesome and pure.”
Stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, tend to require conflict to resonate with audiences. But in this environment there aren’t snickering bad guys, twisting their mustaches as they toss sand into a rival’s cube.
“There are no villains in this world. They really are just the loveliest, kindest kids and adults,” Kim affirms. “It’s a very improbable utopia.”
The director found her villain in the clock. It is the implacable foe, when tenths of a second separate winners from runners up, and cubes are solved in a flash.
“For me, it became obvious that the only true conflict,” Kim observes, “was the thing that’s out of everyone’s hands, which is the competition.”
The clock, in a larger sense, was not on Feliks’s side. As competitors age, they typically find it harder and harder to keep pace with the upstarts.
“[Feliks] is 23…He’s been dominant for 10 years. As we saw Schwan say, when people start to have adult lives, they start to drop off in the rankings,” Kim notes. “So it was going to be interesting to see how he dealt with loss and if he was going to be gracious if Max won, like truly helping usher in his successor…or was he going to really take it personally and in a hard way. That’s the tension that we had to lean into.”
The Speed Cubers is one of 10 shorts to make the Academy’s shortlist. It joined two other Netflix titles in that exclusive club—A Love Song for Latasha and What Would Sophia Loren Do? Kim says the recognition came as a surprise.
“Honestly, I was dumbfounded. I mean, everyone basically had warned me like, ‘Hey, this is a total long shot,’” Kim tells Deadline. “To actually make it to the shortlist, I was in a state of shock. I’m still kind of in a state of shock.”