There’s something about basketball that makes it one of the slickest and easiest games to watch. When it’s played right, there might not be a game that looks prettier or feels as freedom inducing. It makes sense that filmmakers would want to capture that beauty, bottle it up, and save it for the world to see. Leave it to unconventional filmmaker Steven Soderbergh to upend that idea. He instead crafts a dramatic and captivating film about the sport, content creation, and film. “High Flying Bird” shimmers and Soderbergh, armed with a killer script from Oscar-winning scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney and an excellent performance from André Holland, crafts an extremely poignant film on the art of creation. In the new world of digital media, some need to put aside their ego for the love of something greater.
“High Flying Bird” follows a sports agent Ray (André Holland), whose client and number one draft pick Erick (Melvin Gregg) has grown antsy during the NBA lockout. Ray has bigger problems, including the fact he could lose his job at the agency (run by Zachary Quinto). With his former assistant (Zazie Beetz), Ray sets out to shake up the landscape of basketball.
Holland kicks off the film with a stern and determined speech. From the word go, he reaches new heights as a performer for Soderbergh. Holland’s big break came from Soderbergh’s television series “The Knick,” but here, he plays second fiddle to no one. Instead, there’s a slyness and charisma that Holland utilizes that can only be described as Clooney-esque. He has control of every second, and as you peel back the layers of his performance, there are some impeccable character beats. His work here begs to be rewatched, and when given the runway, he shows why so many believe he can become one of the great actors of his generation.
The rest of the cast turns in great work as well. Bill Duke reminds us why he needs to keep making movies. He continues to be great in the right role, and here, he gets to have a lot of fun. Beetz keeps showcasing diverse sides of her talent as a performer, and again shows a warmth that draws audiences toward her.
Gregg proved that “American Vandal” was not a one-off performance, and showcases his talent in the small moments as well as the big ones. Hopefully, he won’t have to play basketball players forever, because he’s frankly too talented for it. Bit roles for Sonja Sohn, Kyle MacLachlan, and Jeryl Prescott prove all of these actors deserve more screentime in future projects. Prescott and Sohn in particular are fascinating to watch, each commanding the camera’s attention when they’re on screen. Even Caleb McLaughlin of “Strangers Things” fame gets some great screentime with Bobbi A. Borley, and bring an infectious energy to the screen.
Setting the whole affair in motion, screenwriter McCraney proves crafts a sparkling screenplay. His language is so precise, so nuanced, you’d might not catch the importance of the lines or who they’re spoken to until your second or third viewing. He also pulls a clear ideology throughout the story, one that holds tremendous relevance to the athletes of today. McCraney writes stunningly layered characters with extremely nuanced relationships well. You feel warmth and care for all of his characters, and he does right by nearly everyone on screen.
The underlying text of the film applies to both the world of sports and cinema. The unique blend of the two makes for a riveting story about those who create, and the commodification of their work. In sports, the terms assets, pieces, and players are often used interchangeably, assigning value to players as if they are “things” rather than players. Since the emergence of Netflix and Hulu, film and television has taken on the same language. Yet behind it all, the filmmakers, actors, athletes, and creatives who build these worlds have passion. Drawing the parallels between the two worlds reminds the audience that entertainment is a great thing. Yet it how we work in these systems to take personal control that is important.
Coming from a filmmaker like Soderbergh, a man constantly trying to reinvent what a filmmaker can do, is important. The film presents a not-so-thinly veiled look at embracing new mediums like Netflix and digital media. In fact, he wants to keep pushing the boundaries. Late in the film, he uses actual basketball players to explain how important it is for the next generation of creatives to take control. The metaphor of playing free, not forcing yourself to live up arbitrary goals, and loving what you’re doing feels prescient. Soderbergh could make big budget movies if he wanted to, but instead, he makes his own pictures, maintaining control every step of the way. In many ways, it makes “High Flying Bird” one of Soderbergh’s most personal films since “And Everything Is Going Fine” in 2010.
Ultimately, some may find the shooting on an iPhone cinematography distracting. At times, the film gets a little dark, but for the most part, Soderbergh has figured this out. The cinematography and camera placement matters, and adds to the storytelling considerably. His editing really does the trick, interweaving interviews from NBA players Donovan Mitchell, Karl Anthony Towns, and Reggie Jackson into the narrative. The film’s pacing and shot selection are also brilliant. There’s a lot to take in, but Soderbergh’s efficiency lets the film tackle big ideas in exactly 90 minutes. There’s not fat on this one.
“High Flying Bird” might be a new career achievement for Soderbergh. Frankly, the February drop of this film could allow it build in audience minds for the next few months. If positioned well, the screenplay is certainly good enough to warrant awards consideration. Holland represents a strong and nuanced performance as well. When “High Flying Bird” works, it is masterful. It should remind audiences why Steven Soderbergh remains a must-watch director every time out.
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Netflix releases “High Flying Bird” Feb. 8, 2019.
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