High Flying Bird, 2019.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Starring Andre Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Glenn Fleshler, Jeryl Prescott, Justin Hurtt-Dunkley, Caleb McLaughlin, Bobbi Bordley, Kyle MacLachlan and Bill Duke.
A sports agent pitches a rookie basketball client on an intriguing and controversial business opportunity during a lockout.
Less than a year after the “semi-retired” Steven Soderbergh unleashed his iPhone horror film Unsane upon theatrical audiences, he’s swung his experimental, low-budget filmmaking approach in a rather different direction, tackling a more sober – yet no less enthralling – drama, and one which streams direct-to-Netflix no less.
With the NBA in the midst of a “lockout” – that’s a dispute between players and team owners which grinds business to a halt – players are left to fend for themselves financially while waiting for the matter to be resolved. This is especially problematic for up-and-coming New York draft pick Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), who is struggling to stay in the black, to say nothing of his agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland), whose credit card is embarrassingly declined in the film’s very first scene.
With no end in sight for the lockout, Ray finds himself attempting to play 4D chess in order to manipulate players and owners alike into bringing the impasse to an end, hoping that he might be able to leverage a greater slice of the pie for players – who, of course, are predominantly black – from the largely white, indecently wealthy owners.
Though it’s fair to say that non-fans may have a tougher time parsing all of the trade lingo here, a spryly witty script from Moonlight scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney does a fine job encapsulating most of the key beats for the uninitiated. At its core, McCraney’s story is concerned with attacking the egregious commodification of basketball players – icky slavery parallels and all – in the simple quest of lining the higher-ups’ pockets (who are best envisioned here through Kyle MacLachlan’s subtly slimy team owner).
High Flying Bird is an angry film no question – and righteously so – yet it also defies the temptation to become a screeching polemic in favour of a more measured, down-to-Earth treatment. The film plainly calls out the NBA on their shit, so to speak, with barbed, rat-a-tat dialogue lamenting how team owners are effectively gaming players, while players – often insufficiently educated or lacking the business or legal nous to fight back – are simply expected to be happy with their lot.
But in the age of social media, there’s always an opportunity to change things up with something as simple as a well-timed tweet, and so Ray hatches his wholly believable plot to exploit the theatre of sports for the gain of not only himself and his client, but the business of basketball as a whole. To that end the film feels incredibly current and Ray’s scheme entirely believable, while layered with a certain fog of ambiguity regarding the precise purity of his intent.
And it’s a major testament to Holland – who previously appeared in the third act of Moonlight – that the film remains so engrossing even through its more dense and exposition-heavy moments. Indeed, there are scenes which play as distractingly prosaic in their desire to convey a message. But even then, Holland lights up the screen at all times, keeping the fury scarcely suppressed while portraying a man whose hands are juggling an increasing number of fast-spinning plates as the lockout drags on.
And a crackerjack supporting cast never hurt anyone; Zazie Beetz is especially alluring as Ray’s former assistant Sam, while The Wire‘s Sonja Sohn is perfectly cast as no-nonsense, possibly alcoholic players’ association rep Myra and legendary character actor Bill Duke gets an unexpectedly meaty role as a wise, weathered youth coach pal of Ray’s.
Few will argue that High Flying Bird is a crowning achievement of Soderbergh’s career, but it is a film which demonstrates the director’s absolute confidence in this envelope-pushing phase of his craft. That there’s also an important message in here about the lack of protections afforded to preyed-upon sportsmen is just the icing on the cake.
Yet further proof that Steven Soderbergh is a master of all filmmaking trades, High Flying Bird sacrifices nothing dramatically through its low-fi technical conception.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.