Director Steven Soderbergh is nothing if not unconventional or unique. I may not always be crazy about the final product he might provide, but he’s at least playful with the medium. With High Flying Bird, he continues the trend of making unconventional choices by filming his second movie on an iPhone. It’s not an ideal choice, but I was willing to see what he was going to do with it. This unusual decision ends up working out in the end as it effectively fits with the narrative of the protagonist’s DIY plan to bring the game of basketball back to its players. High Flying Bird may not fully coalesce from a narrative standpoint, but the actors and the snappy screenplay by Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney help to make it a breezy watch.
André Holland is Ray, a sports agent who finds his job in trouble while an NBA lockout is occurring. He then comes up with a plan to give the game back to the players. By teaming up with his rookie basketball player client Erick, he attempts to get the NBA’s attention by starting a feud between Erick and a fellow player, resulting in a few deals coming in that threaten to affect the NBA. Melvin Gregg is very good in the role of Erick, the rookie basketball player in question, even though he’s just a cipher in all that occurs. I think that’s part of the point and the way he comes off at the beginning makes him seem like he doesn’t know or really care about the proceedings other than he just wants to survive. It makes sense in the context of the movie and it gives the movie someone that’s the closest to a sympathetic human being. Still, this is basically Holland’s show. He comes off like a huckster in the shape of a Vince McMahon or a P.T. Barnum with all the promoting he’s doing. The fact that you find him admirable for having the guts to go against the system and believe that his plan can come through is a testament to how well Holland sells the role. Eventually, you do realize that this might not be all that it seems and maybe it’s too good to be true. But what the movie wants to do is propose is if such an ambitious plan can be possible. It feels like a revolutionary move in what he’s doing the more you think about it. Even though it’s a sport movie that’s dominated by black males, it’s the white owners who give them the power and the freedom to do what they’re best at, and get it across to as many people as possible. It’s impossible to really do this when only a handful of people, no matter how big their influence, can really maintain such a big project that wants to contain an even bigger group of people.
It even mirrors the recent video streaming boom that’s become a thing, with even companies like Apple and Disney wanting to throw their hat in the ring. The more I think about this whole plan, the more I realize how genius and forward thinking its idea are. Also, it’s a movie on Netflix that’s essentially about how to put a product on a service like Netflix, which is clever. Soderbergh’s heist movie-esque approach to the proceedings further emphasizes the effort that Ray puts into his ideas and how he promotes it to people in his inner circle. Holland proved to be a fantastic presence in Moonlight, but he’s clearly a name worth knowing. It may not be the kind of movie that will bring a huge box office gross, but the fact that it’s on Netflix means that people will give this a shot and appreciate his performance. He really makes this movie shine and I don’t know if the rest of the movie would work as well with anyone else in the role. In a role that could come off as slick and unlikable, he adds a sense of humanity and pathos in the movie’s quieter scenes. Still, the best moments of the film are when he’s just going around New York doing his hardest to sell people on his unconventional new ideas on basketball.
The rest of the movie works fine. Many of the supporting players, including Zazie Beetz as his assistant and Kyle MacLachlan as a team owner, make impressions in small roles. It does have some food for thought when discussing how basketball players are treated from a financial and business perspective and the institutional racism that plays a part in it. The occasional real-life interviews with actual players help to add authenticity to the movie. There’s a lot of deal talk that feels like reading coding for the most advanced mind. I get what it’s doing but it feels too complex for a more casual viewer. However, if you like that kind of talk, then you’ll get a kick out of it. I just think it made me feel dumb at times. Still, certain moments like Holland and Gregg at the restaurant at the beginning do a good job at presenting their misfortune because of the lockout and I wish there were more scenes like that. I just wish the movie wasn’t so slick about what it wanted to present and just took a breath occasionally. It moves way so fast at times that it’s hard to have a real grasp on everything that’s going on.
But that doesn’t keep the rest of the movie from being entertaining. The fact that it’s only 90 minutes and it moves so fast keeps it from feeling too heavy. The pacing and the tone keep things going. It’s a good drama that has some interestingly vague ideas, but it’s at least ideas that I appreciated thinking about by the end of it.
I am giving High Flying Bird a 3 out of 5 Hairpieces!