From the opening seconds of High Flying Bird, words are flying at a million miles per minute. Steven Soderbergh’s new film, with a script from Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, is so dense with motormouthed conversation that it can be hard to keep up. Like its lead character Ray (Andre Holland, who developed the story with Soderbergh and McCraney), High Flying Bird is always a couple of steps ahead, but it is very fun and satisfying to play catch up with it. A tribute to the art of talking and the power of the right words being said by the right person, it sets Netflix’s original film slate for 2019 back in the right direction after the hideous Polar and disappointing Velvet Buzzsaw.
Ray is an agent for rising star rookies in the NBA, but a season-long lockout (a disagreement between the players’ associations and the team owners means that no games are getting played) is testing his finances and his relationships with his clients. A incredibly smart analyst of both the game and the business, Ray sets about on a risky mission to change the system, allowing his clients, especially potential superstar Erick Scott (former Vine star Melvin Gregg), to make their money separate from the league.
Thought basketball is the setting for High Flying Bird, McCraney’s script is far more concerned with the business than the sport. The skill on show here is not Erick’s basketball talents, but Ray’s knack for smooth talking as he bounces between players’ association representative Myra (The Wire’s Sonja Sohn), his own boss David (Zachary Quinto), and slimy corporate overlord David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan). Believable protagonists that balance this kind of incredible intelligence with excellent people skills are rare, and McCraney ensures that Ray’s company, while sometimes exhausting, is never boring, as he outthinks every other player in town.
Holland’s performance matches the razor sharp script, keeping things grounded, compelling, and funny even when some of the technical jargon flies over your head. Gregg is also very impressive in his first major film role – playing off both Holland and Zazie Beetz, as rising star agent Sam, with a skill and ease that surely promises great things to come. Gregg’s very casting is a nice meta nod to a central plot point about self-made social media stardom, a nod that also ties in to Soderbergh’s decision to shoot High Flying Bird on an iPhone.
Last year, he shot Unsane in the same format, but this is a crisper, nicer looking end product. Some shots, especially interiors lit by sunlight, still look a bit blown out and clumsy, but the mobility and immediacy make for worthwhile trade offs. We’re a good few years into Soderbergh’s ‘retirement’, but he’s as energised as he’s ever been, working both outside and within the traditional studio system (thanks to his Netflix backing for both this and his Panama Papers film due out later this year). He packs a hell of a lot into just 90 minutes here, and though some plot moves can feel overly abrupt, the lightning fast pace is vital to High Flying Bird’s success.
If you’re looking for a ‘sports movie’, High Flying Bird will most likely not satisfy. Its closest cousin is Moneyball (a project that Soderbergh almost directed), more concerned with how to run the game than how to play it. Soderbergh and McCraney’s triumph is in how their energetic conversations feel like physical bouts, fluidly moving the plot forward while shifting power dynamics and giving us quick insights into the characters’ inner lives, before it all comes together in an unexpected but wonderfully satisfying finale.