Film

Review: A Cautionary Tale in Soderbergh’s Propulsive, Kinetic High Flying Bird

One of the week’s most unexpected treats can be found via Netflix—it’s the second film directed by Steven Soderbergh using only an iPhone as his camera (as he did with Unsane last year). More ambitious in scope although still fairly intimate, High Flying Bird is the story of sports agent Ray (André Holland, from Moonlight), who is on the verge of being let go by his agency because none of his biggest clients (all basketball players) are currently earning anything thanks to a prolonged lockout. Without actually telling his smug boss (Zachary Quinto) he’s going to do it, Ray sets himself the goal of single-handedly ending the lockout by setting things in motion that send both team owners and the players association scrambling to work out their issues and get back to the practice of old white men exploiting young black athletes.

High Flying Bird

André Holland as Ray Burke in High Flying Bird, directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Photo by Peter Andrews

If that sounds a little militant, just wait until you see this kinetic film, written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (who wrote the play upon which Moonlight is based), which ends with a desperate plea for one character to read Harry Edwards’s book The Revolt of the Black Athlete, which is still desperately relevant today. Holland often plays fairly subdued characters, but here, he’s absolutely ferocious in an almost unassuming way. He walks into a room with a client or adversary—seemingly with no agenda—and walks out with every bit of information or power he came there to extract. It’s a marvel to see him set loose like this, and even more so because the equally matched Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) is on hand as his former assistant who clearly learned well while working for him, making a few plays of her own along the way.

High Flying Bird features a few wonderful key players, including Bill Duke as youth basketball coach Spencer, who has a long history with Ray and a few very strong feelings about the parallels between slavery and the modern-day treatment of black athletes (are you sensing a theme?); Kyle MacLachlan as a key team owner who must be played and swayed in order for the lockout to end; and Sonja Sohn as Myra, the players association negotiator who is often the smartest person in the room but allows Ray to work his borderline-legal magic to get her players back to playing.

Admittedly, some of the nuances of what Ray and others are doing here might make your head spin, especially when the film doubles back in time to show a few keys moments from a different perspective (not unlike what Soderbergh did in Logan Lucky), but if you catch the slight of hand, the writing really is impressive. I’ve seen some people complain that there’s not any actual basketball in the film (outside of some glimpses of college ball on televisions in the backgrounds of some scenes), but that’s kind of the point. There’s a key one-on-one game between two future teammates that we hear about and catch glimpses of from a cell phone video, but our minds create a far more interesting game than anything Soderbergh could show us.

I was particularly impressed by Melvin Gregg’s performance as Ray’s latest No. 1 draft pick client Erick Scott, who is key to ending the lockout, even though he doesn’t realize it. He starts a social media beef with Jamero (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley) and Jamero’s razor-sharp mother/manager (Jeryl Prescott) that turns into the perfect incendiary device for Ray to use to spark something that threatens the very existence of the NBA. It may sound far fetched, but it plays out as beautifully believable. A frequent Soderbergh device, the film is filled with real-world touches, including insightful cutaway interviews of young NBA players who discuss the perils of being young and slightly naive about the ways of professional sports. If you look at High Flying Bird as a cautionary tale, it may make a lot more sense.

Once again acting as his own cinematographer and editor, Soderbergh is in a place in his career where technology and inspiration are no longer something that can hold him back. They are the tools of his trade these days, and if an idea comes to him and he wants to turn it into a propulsive work like this, he can simply make it happen with the help of a few true believers and a streaming service (his next film—the larger-scale The Laundromat—is also set to be released by Netflix later this year). I not only really like High Flying Bird, but I love that it exists.

The film debuts on Friday, Feb. 8 on Netflix.

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