'High Flying Bird': Film Review | Slamdance 2019

A sharp-minded look at high-stakes action in the professional basketball world.

Inventively shot on an iPhone, Netflix's new film from Steven Soderbergh and 'Moonlight' co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney is a smart little inside-basketball feature.

Steven Soderbergh and Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney lay up a sharp little inside-basketball feature with High Flying Bird. Inventively shot on an iPhone and energized by on-the-make characters and an advocacy of the idea that athletes need to take more power into their own hands, this Netflix presentation almost runs out of breath with all its fast-talking sports agents in near-constant states of exasperation and shuttling all over New York City — the film was shot in 13 days. But it does provide a tart behind-the-scenes look at the financial side of sports and the potential for labor unrest in a high-flying business. The film world premiered Sunday at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City and will turn up on home screens on Feb. 8.

A labor dispute that’s led to a long players’ lockout sets the stage for this drama about — what else? — money and power. The fact that the battle basically boils down to a control issue between rich white team owners and mostly black athletes largely goes unspoken but is the elephant in the room; if and how that dynamic might be changed lies at the core of this fleet tale in which nearly everyone is upset or annoyed nearly all the time.

Much of the reason for that is that no one’s being paid at the moment. As sharply as he’s dressed and as purposeful as he may be, agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland) has his credit card denied at a fancy spot and all expense accounts and salary payments are temporarily frozen. The agency itself could be in trouble. With everything on hold, New York team owner (Kyle MacLachlan) isn’t raking in any coin, either.

Ray’s big new client is rookie Erick (Melvin Gregg), who stands tall not only on the court but could, in Ray’s mind, represent the means by which to achieve some leverage and actually alter the financial dynamics of the game. For those who need reminding, black players weren’t even welcome in the NBA until 1950 and still aren’t very visible in ownership circles, despite the fact that, as a veteran trainer points out, “They invented a game on top of a game,” making it the great attraction it is today.

Ray sees the current impasse as a possible moment to reset the scales, to distribute the money and the power more equitably, a hard thing to do when the team owners are so entrenched and everyone’s looking out for number one. In a bottom-line game, Ray wants the players to receive proper value.

But it’s a hard juggling act to pull off. Ray’s sharp young assistant Sam (Zazie Beets) is not so altruistic, jumping ship from the agency to the Players Association. Ray zips down to Philly to meet with the top prospect’s mother, who is of the opinion that she can rep her son better than an agent can, takes Erick to the South Bronx for an exhibition event arranged by a long-ago player (Bill Duke) that gets unnecessarily tense and tries to get the New York team owner to be a bit more flexible. Every day is a tough day.

Basically, it’s a battle between the big boys who want to continue business as usual and the guys who play the game who feel they deserve more money and say-so. There are dynamics and themes from previous Soderbergh films relating to regular citizens taking the power back by one means or another — from Erin Brockovich to Logan Lucky and others in between — and the new technology has invigorated the ultra-prolific director to try new perspectives and shots just because he can.

There is so much running about, changing or uncertain loyalties and ruses being played that the film comes to feel a bit more dashed off and lightweight than it might have, nor does one emerge convinced that there might be any kind of path in the real world for different sorts of faces  in the owners’ boxes anytime soon. All the same, Soderbergh and McCraney have entertainingly stirred the pot and put a perspective on the screen that will stir some reactions in the real world and get the issue of ownership and fairness talked about, at least for a while. It’s a sharp-minded film.

Production companies: Extension 765, Harper Road
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Andre Holland, Zazie Beets, Melvin Gregg, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Glenn Fleshler, Jeryl Prescott, Justin Hurtt-Dunkley, Caleb McLaughlin, Bobbi Bordley, Kyle MacLachlan, Bill Duke
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Producer: Joseph Malloch
Executive producers: Ken Meyer, Andre Holland
Director of photography: Peter Andrews
Production designer: Andy Eklund
Costume designer: Marci Rodgers
Editor: Mary Ann Bernard
Music: David Wilder Savage
Casting: Carmen Cuba
Venue: Slamdance Film Festival

90 minutes