The Game on Top of the Game in High Flying Bird

There’s hardly a basketball dribbled in High Flying Bird, director Steven Soderbergh’s new iPhone-shot Netflix film. Its entire story takes place in the middle of a lockout, which is not a typical way to present a sports movie, to say the least. There are no montages of teammates coming together to overcome the odds. There’s no big game at the end to send us out on an emotional high. Hoosiers, this is not.

High Flying Bird may not become a classic basketball film, but it has a lot on its mind. Soderbergh and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney are much more interested in labor negotiations than buzzer-beaters. Their story of a basketball agent that tries to upend the system defies sports movie convention in thoughtful and revolutionary ways, leading us to consider how capitalism and sport intersect.

Set during a labor dispute between the owners and players, High Flying Bird follows Ray Burke (Andre Holland), a high-profile sports agent that maneuvers to give the players more control over the game. However, Ray’s rookie client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), just wants to get back on the court. Instead of actual basketball, we witness the off-court negotiations between Ray, players’ association president Myra (Sonja Sohn), and the owners, led by smug, obscenely wealthy New York owner David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan).

If this all sounds a little dry, don’t worry. The execution here is totally compelling, from the brisk, lively dialogue to the engaging performances. McCraney, who won an Oscar for Moonlight, has fashioned a sharp script that is full of ideas. It’s essentially a stagy actor’s showcase, littered with monologues masquerading as conversation. It will demand repeated viewings just so you can understand everything that McCraney wants to say.

Andre Holland is utterly convincing and charismatic as a quick-witted sports agent with big plans. He’s the kind of likable actor that makes you wonder why he hasn’t been the lead in a dozen movies by now. Perhaps best known as Kevin in Moonlight, you never lose interest in what Holland is doing on screen, and that’s even more true in High Flying Bird. An executive producer on the film, Holland brought the idea to Soderbergh after working with him on the Cinemax TV show The Knick. One of the best things about this film is that you can sense that everyone making it was passionate about the project.

In the other roles, MacLachlan makes for an inspired choice as a stand-in for Knicks owner James Dolan. He avoids playing the part as a straight-up villain, but you don’t for a second think that he has the players’ best interests in mind. His empty lecture about the team as a “family” rightfully falls on deaf ears. In High Flying Bird and in real-life professional sports, the owners usually only refer to their players as such when they can sniff out a power shift. Rising star Zazie Beetz (Atlanta, Deadpool 2) plays Sam, Ray’s ambitious former assistant. Just like Holland, Beetz is extremely adept at creating magnetic and empathetic personalities. Sam may play a small role, but as the film unfolds you start to see what Ray sees in her.

To be sure, there are plot mechanics in High Flying Bird that don’t quite come together. Ray’s master plan is never completely clear and some of the supporting characters don’t feel fully fleshed out. The story is maybe a little too wonky for its own good, as it eschews pulse-raising action on the court. Some of the best sports movies have done something similar, such as Moneyball and Jerry Maguire, but High Flying Bird is its own distinct animal, narratively and visually.

This is Soderbergh’s second film shot on an iPhone, after Unsane, last year’s psychological thriller starring Claire Foy. In almost real time, you can see him working out how to best use this low-budget technology. A smartphone camera gives you a sense of immediacy because it captures everything in focus. For this reason, Unsane possessed an urgent and unsettling visual palette, as you questioned the main character’s sanity. However, the iPhone struggles in low light, which was a problem for a film often set at night or in the dark corners of a hospital.

Soderbergh utilizes the iPhone to greater effect for High Flying Bird, which takes place mostly during the daytime or under the bright fluorescents of a gym. The shots of New York City look surprisingly vibrant for a smartphone. On occasion, Soderbergh allows the frame to shake when someone slaps a table or makes a sudden movement, which could threaten to take you out of the story, or it could be a reminder that he’s using disruptive technology to make a movie about disrupting the system. Soderbergh is always up to something, isn’t he?

High Flying Bird is extremely of the moment — and not just because it’s shot with an iPhone. The last NBA lockout was in 2011 and wiped out 16 games from the regular season. In the NBA, superstar players have more control than ever about where they play, but discontent reigns among the players’ association as owners get richer but claim to be strapped for cash. There’s growing pessimism across professional sports that more lockouts could be coming in the near future.

In the film, Spence, a youth basketball coach played by Bill Duke, says that the owners invented “a game on top of a game” to control their employees. Not often do you see a sports movie speak so plainly unromantic about the business of sports, but it’s quite refreshing. Later, an impromptu one-on-one game between the rookie Erick and his rival teammate goes viral, leading Ray to set up subsequent games between NBA stars across the country. This circumvents the system the owners have in place because they no longer have control over their product, which forces MacLachlan’s David and the other owners to the table, suddenly willing to listen to the players’ demands. This could could actually happen if there were another lockout. With the rise of social media, the players could conceivably create their own league that draws buzz and revenue. Would this be in their best interest? That’s a whole other discussion.

It makes sense that a film that uses a lockout to explore labor relations would leave us not with a game-winning three, but a suggestion for further reading. The last scene implores the audience to continue hashing out these issues of employee vs. employer beyond the movie, particularly as it relates to race. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a Netflix basketball movie shot on an iPhone to be so cerebral and revolutionary, but High Flying Bird can’t stop thinking about the game on top of the game.

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