Steven Soderbergh’s first film made on his iPhone, the thriller “Unsane,” was pretty much a bust, in terms of both story and style. With “High Flying Bird,” however, he proves that the technique can work, at least when wedded to a solid script. Along with the conventionally-shot “Logan Lucky,” it makes you glad that his proclaimed retirement was so short-lived.
The Netflix movie is basically a talkathon, but the dialogue-driven piece by Tyrell Alvin McCraney (who wrote the play on which “Moonlight” was based and co-scripted the Oscar-winning film) is sharp and clever, and it’s presented with an impressive degree of fluidity, both verbal and visual.
The plot is set during a NBA lockout, with the players’ association and the owners at loggerheads. The focus is on Ray Burke (André Holland), a cunning, motor-mouthed agent whom we meet in conference with one of his clients, rookie Erick (Melvin Gregg), at a swanky restaurant. The kid has taken out a loan to tide him over until the lockout ends and he gets his first paycheck, and Ray forcefully explains how that was a mistake. But when it comes time to cover the bill, Ray is told that his credit card has been denied.
The reason is explained by his boss (Zachary Quinto): the agency is in dire financial straits, and employees are being laid off or—in Ray’s case—having their expense accounts put on hold. That sets Burke to work to resolve the impasse, and the film follows him as he proceeds; but it keeps us largely in the dark, expecting us to guess about why he’s doing what he’s doing every step of the way. It’s an effective ploy, which carries a satisfying payoff.
A variety of other characters play important roles in Ray’s peregrinations. There’s his assistant, or more precisely ex-assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz), who’s moved on to the players’ association headed by hard-nosed Maya (Sonja Sohn), as well as an oily team owner (Kyle MacLachlan) who’s standing in the way of a settlement while pretending to search for one. And there’s Spencer (Bill Duke), the sage coach of a youth basketball program to which Ray brings Erick as an honored guest. Also showing up there is Erick’s prime rival Jamero (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), along with his so-called “momanager” (Jeryl Prescott). It’s video of an impromptu one-on-one between the two stars that goes viral and sets off a firestorm that threatens to bring a fundamental alteration in the relationship between players and owners in the sports business.
That business aspect of the NBA underlies the entire script. An unnamed player (Michael Duradola) appears periodically in interview segments to explain how players must behave under the current system for professional reasons, and at one point Spencer succinctly sets out his history of how a game originally played for love was transformed into a billion-dollar entertainment enterprise that makes huge profits for white owners though black athletes do the real work. The premise of “High Flying Bird” is essentially that the reaction to the brief contest between Jamero and Erick suggests that the current business model could be replaced by something more cognizant of where the talent really lies, a realization Ray might be able to use to his advantage—or not.
To be truthful, the analysis of the NBA structure presented in McCraney’s script can be criticized as more than a mite simplistic, and the changes it suggests (in which, as an inside joke, Netflix is mentioned as a possible catalyst) as unlikely. But Soderbergh keeps things moving so confidently (shooting the picture himself, of course, under his pseudonym of Peter Andrews, and editing it under the name of Mary Ann Bernard) that you’re hardly likely to notice—or object.
He’s also secured fine performances down the line. Veteran Duke is particularly impressive as the world-weary coach, but the heart of the movie is Holland, whose razor-sharp timing and machine-gun dialogue delivery make Ray a charismatic ball of fire you can’t keep your eyes or ears from.
“High Flying Bird” might not make it all the way into the cinematic stratosphere, but it comes close enough to capture your attention, basketball fan or not.