High Flying Bird Review

Nobody quite knows what Steven Soderbergh is doing, but his projects sure are interesting. “High Flying Bird,” shot speedily on an iPhone and released on Netflix, is a dialogue-forward fast-talking business movie set during a pro-basketball lockout. In other words, it’s in its own category of “sports movie.”

The core of “High Flying Bird” is a verbally sizzling script from Tarell Alvin McCraney, the playwright known best for turning a drama school project into the Oscar-winning screenplay for “Moonlight” in 2016. McCraney’s theatre background will help clarify why 90 percent of “High Flying Bird” is conversations in restaurants and office buildings. The film very intentionally deprives its audience of the kinetic pleasures of a sports movie, choosing to focus on the strategy side, enforcing the common cliché that “sports is a business.”

Perhaps a better way to frame the movie is that it wants to focus on athletes as people. To enforce this notion, Soderbergh filmed interviews with a few NBA players, most of whom recently entered the league, asking them about the experiences and lessons learned from their transition to the pros. He divides the story up and fills these interviews in to remind audiences that while the movie is fiction, the scenarios and challenges in it are very real.

André Holland, who had a supporting role in “Moonlight,” stars as Ray, a top sports manager who has landed himself the number one overall draft pick, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), as a client. With the players association and the league locked out, however, players aren’t getting paid, which leads Erick to make some short-sighted decisions that could jeopardize his first rookie contract.

The story begins extremely business-like in its approach to the subject matter and slowly reveals the bigger picture at hand, though it remains intellectual in its primary function as a story. The script hints at more emotional subplots, specifically past traumas of its characters, but empathy is largely in short supply. For as smart as it is, however, it feels rushed. You keep waiting for it to change gears and offer something different, but it has a single tone and pace, one that it does extremely well thanks to Soderbergh’s naturally sleek style, but nevertheless, it’s singular in vision.

Soderbergh’s involvement in the film feels less about his direction and more about getting this project financed. The film has points to make, points that are complex and compelling about athletes and the systems that contain them, but they aren’t given a lot of time to sink in.

There’s a lot of Aaron Sorkin in this film. Sorkin writes scripts that are intellectually stimulating with a pulsing rhythm, that are on to the next witty exchange before you can appreciate the previous one. It’s a film that feels smarter than you, that you have to rise up to meet. That’s largely the entertainment factor that we get from “High Flying Bird.” The Soderbergh-McCraney pairing has that explosive dynamism to it, but the film consciously limits the breadth of what it can offer audiences.

3/5 Stars

High Flying Bird
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Starring: André Holland, Zazie Beets, Melvin Gregg


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