High Flying Bird - Review

High Flying Bird teams Steven Soderbergh with Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney for a high-octane sports drama.

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Steven Soderbergh’s recent obsession with low-cost production has yielded surprising results. The pivot from a tried-and-true heist flick like Logan Lucky to 2018’s Unsane felt like the arrival of a new filmmaker, at least one reminiscent of his earlier, creepier films that edged into thriller territory. Unsane was gloriously lit, wonderfully acted by Claire Foy, but lacking in follow-through on its high-concept story. High Flying Bird, a basketball drama set during a lockout (prepare for the worst pun in the world), has plenty of follow-through. It’s the perfect evolution of Soderbergh’s quick-witted style, and though the scale is much less frightening, it’s a no-less demanding story.

The borderline-hindering production of High Flying Bird is not its greatest strength, but it is an interesting wrinkle. Lighting flickers to accommodate the iPhone’s sensory camera, and the darker frames always appear with a slight grain. Rather than use the low-light effect to his use, as he did in several grimy Unsane shots, Soderbergh shoots more like a standard production. It spotlights incredible acting from Andre Holland rather than try to make a character of itself. It’s akin to his underappreciated Matt Damon indulgence The Informant!, which means it doesn’t need to be his best film to succeed. There is enough creative risk in the film’s directing to keep it watchable, but not so much so that the story is sidelined. With writing from Tarell Alvin McCraney, the writer of Moonlight, there is plenty of substance to dig out of High Flying Bird without flashy directing.

This is a very inside-baseball movie. Like Moneyball (which Soderbergh was once set to direct), there is plenty of talk about playing, but little seen; it’s not the point. High Flying Bird sets up struggling talent agent Ray Burke (Holland) who has just signed an NBA rookie (American Vandal’s Melvin Gregg) amidst a lockout. While things go from nothing to nowhere in terms of solving the issue, Burke watches his star client throw away his chances of playing in the league on a Twitter beef. Instead of sitting idly by, Burke gets involved and pitches an idea to his man: What if we didn’t need the NBA? The management, primarily represented by the unforgiving David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), is uninterested in players, overcome by a cumbersome system. Burke suggests an idea similar to pay-per-view fights, only without the obligation to stay with a network. Rather than watch basketball on TV for the league, what if you could watch your favorite players play streetball for a Netflix special? While the idea has plenty of holes, it’s a refreshing twist on the sports-drama, spotlighting the bureaucracy of executives who only want to make a quick buck.

Another carry-over from Soderbergh’s intended Moneyball is the inclusion of player interviews. Real-life NBA rookies appear infrequently to shed light on issues within the NBA and what its like to be a newcomer. What already has plenty of real world connections is given a platform for commentary, though it tends to air on the side of vagueness. There are no real accusations leveled in High Flying Bird, though its characters are often under attack. It’s a beautifully acted film with gloves on, slipping somewhere in between films like The Informant! and Moneyball: it’s better than most.