There’s such a constant influx of new material on Netflix — from older movies to new original series — that it’s tempting to either scroll through options for hours, or just go straight to the biggest, most colorful title on the screen. But there’s a wealth of great content hiding just under the surface, including three new documentary shorts acquired by Netflix that are being quietly released over the summer: The Claudia Kishi Club, The Speed Cubers, and John Was Trying to Contact Aliens. They’re all under an hour — Claudia Kishi and John are 16 minutes long, while The Speed Cubers runs 40 minutes — and they’re each remarkable in their own right.
The Speed Cubers, which premiered on Netflix on July 29, focuses on two young men in the world of competitive speedcubing. The sport itself is fascinating — you’ve never seen someone really solve a Rubik’s Cube unless you’ve seen them do it so quickly that their hands just become blurs. But that’s just the tip of the filmic iceberg. Director Sue Kim finds the real story in the relationship between Feliks Zemdegs, former king of the cubers, and Max Park, his usurper and unlikely friend.
For Max, who has autism, speedcubing is more than just a game. His parents originally introduced him to cubing as a way to help hone his fine motor skills, and as he began to enter competitions, it became a way of developing his social skills, too. Feliks is clearly an idol for Max — Max’s father recalls that Feliks was the first person Max ever asked for an autograph — and as they keep meeting on the cubing circuit, they become friends. The more they get to know each other, the more nuanced their bond becomes. Their rivalry somehow always remains supportive rather than overly competitive, even as they wind up facing off at the cubing World Championship again.
Despite the sting of having Max blow past almost every cubing record he’s set, Feliks continues to be supportive, texting Max after every win to wish him congratulations, and looking after him in person. When they’re all at dinner together, it’s Feliks who makes sure Max is eating his greens. While Kim has a limited amount of time to tell the story, she manages to paint a telling portrait of these young men by highlighting such unintentionally vulnerable moments. It makes their struggles with envy and disappointment all the more compelling, as those natural feelings butt up against the friendship they’ve built.
The Claudia Kishi Club and John Was Trying to Contact Aliens center on vastly different subjects, but like The Speed Cubers, succeed in telling compelling, coherent stories by finding a specific focus. The Claudia Kishi Club, directed by Sue Ding, celebrates the Babysitters’ Club character Claudia Kishi for being the rare Asian character who’s actually fleshed out and not playing into stereotypes. Ding explores the character’s impact by interviewing Asian-American creatives (members of “the Claudia Kishi Club”), such as Sarah Kuhn and Yumi Sakugawa, on the effect she Claudia on them. John Was Trying to Contact Aliens, directed by Matthew Killip, is broadly about obsession and loneliness, but finds its peg in the form of John Shepherd, a Michigan resident who spent 30 years trying to contact aliens by broadcasting music into space. After decades of looking up into space, he finally finds a sense of connection down on Earth.
The documentary shorts are easy to miss, especially when Netflix’s original programming includes blockbuster films and series like The Old Guard and Cursed, but they’re some of the best new additions to Netflix’s prodigious library. Documentaries aren’t often on Netflix’s front page unless there’s something particularly momentous about them — if they address crucial parts of history, like 13th; focus on a major celebrity, like Miss Americana; or highlight an unbelievable series of events, like Tiger King. But putting the spotlight on smaller slices of life can make seemingly inconsequential or niche stories feel tremendously affecting, and these three documentary shorts are well worth seeking out for the way they do just that.
The Speed Cubers and The Claudia Kishi Club are streaming on Netflix now. John Was Trying to Contact Aliens will be on Netflix Aug. 20.