Intense focus and an obsession with repetitive behaviors are both symptoms of autism – behaviors that might crudely be labeled as “abnormal” in any other sphere of life. Yet in the world of competitive Speedcubing, these are the very abilities that make Max Park the most formidable Speed Cuber in the world.
When someone says “sport”, most people would not immediately associate Speedcubing with a word more at home with Olympic athletes or basketball. Yet, Speedcubing is indeed a sport – an overlooked one, with a surprising amount of heart. Netflix’s new short documentary, The Speed Cubers, uses it as a framing device for a heart-warming story about friendship. In fact, the sport itself takes a backseat to the truly inspiring relationship between Max and the former holder of every record that Max has demolished: Feliks Zemdegs.
Building friendships from Rubik’s Cubes
Their unlikely friendship begins as a direct result of Max’s autism, his father, Schwan Park tells the audience. His diagnosis came at an early age, and one of the hallmark symptoms is difficulty with fine motor skills. Miki, Max’s mother, decided to help her son practice exercising his fingers – cue the Rubik’s Cube. A quick YouTube tutorial soon turned into a race against the best times in the world. YouTube also helped give rise to clear hero worship for Zemdegs, who held pretty much every world record at that point.
Naturally, the name “Max Park” was growing more widespread. It wasn’t long before Feliks and Max met for the first time at the World Championships in 2017. “He was very, very excited,” Zemdegs reminisces with a hint of modesty. His utter lack of pretentiousness is likely what has garnered him so many fans. Well, that and the fact that he’s been breaking speedcubing records since he was 12.
I don’t even mind admitting that I misted up a bit towards the end. Seeing how supportive Feliks is of Max, despite how much it must hurt to pass over his legacy, is truly moving. Max’s idolization of Feliks is similarly touching. In one scene, Feliks joins Max’s family for lunch. At Feliks’s urge of, “Vegetables, Max…”, he replies “Yeah”, and reaches out to grab some greens. Max also brushes his teeth once before dinner and once after dinner “because Feliks does it”.
Speedcubing and Coping with ASD
Parks and Zemdegs’ friendship is not the only one highlighted. The overall theme is that of camaraderie and support. Although Max struggles to control his emotions upon not doing as well as expected, there is always a sense of kinship among all the competitors. It is this environment of shared interested – a shared niche – that gave Max Park the space to develop emotionally.
In fact, the real beauty of this documentary is how it shows an autistic child’s emotional growth. It is difficult for autistic individuals to form meaningful attachments with others – a fact that clearly weighs on Miki Park. It is quite remarkable that Max initially formed this strong a bond with Feliks Zemdegs over the internet, and without constant face-to-face interaction. But it is not only the attachment that shows Max’s emotional flourishing. In a heartbreakingly sincere moment, Miki and Schwan recall when Max achieved his first podium win. While standing on the podium, he looked at his fellow winners and adjusted his posture to match theirs. The moment was clearly fraught with significance for the parents. Throughout the documentary, they continue to discuss the ways in which the Speedcubing community has changed Max for the better.
Before watching The Speed Cubers, I would be the last to suggest a documentary based on the competitive sport of solving Rubik’s Cubes. If the director, Sue Kim, had focused on only that I would certainly suggest you give it a pass. However, Kim takes people on the fringes of society – the geeks, the nerds, the “weird” math kids – and makes them the heroes for 40 minutes. At less than an hour in length, it is a must-see for anyone who loves a heartwarming real-life story. They are hard to come by these days.