Netflix’s High Flying Bird improves on Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone experiment

“You care all the way, or you don’t care at all, man,” retired-basketball-player-turned-youth-coach Spence (Bill Duke) tells sports agent Ray (André Holland) early in High Flying Bird. Spence is preaching to the converted, but as Ray engages in some dangerous negotiations, the sermon seems good for his spirits anyway. A new Netflix drama directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Moonlight playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, High Flying Bird is dominated by Ray’s belief that passion and commitment ought to override all other concerns. Money, respect, power: they’re all secondary, the byproducts of doing whatever you do by the highest possible standards, no matter what the powers that be throw in your way.

It’s no accident that Ray’s credo sounds a bit reminiscent of Soderbergh’s filmmaking ethos. The film isn’t just concerned with the pursuit of excellence in the abstract. Though it takes time to reveal its true nature, this is as political a film as Soderbergh has ever made. He and McCraney appear to be interested in nothing less than the way entrenched power structures can be taken apart by those on their lower levels.

For Ray, that involves some combination of bullheadedness and deception. An agent who spends most of High Flying Bird in what appears to be a professional downward spiral, Ray is endlessly disappointed that not enough of the people around him share his fervency in caring about doing things right — not Erick (American Vandal’s Melvin Gregg), a could-be-star making bad financial decisions as an NBA lockout prevents him from starting what would be his rookie season; not Ray’s boss (Zachary Quinto), who’s shocked to learn that Ray has put aside a percentage of his commission as a rainy-day fund for his clients; and certainly not the NBA owners, who are betting they can put the squeeze on hungry athletes who want to play, and earn, before their time runs out, never mind what their lockout does to the game and those who love it.

But passion is a fragile thing, maybe even for Ray, who spends much of the film in heated, sometimes frustrated conversations as he tries to persuade, pressure, or trick those who don’t share his vision. The exact shape of that vision is only fully revealed in the film’s final moments. At first, it seems like Ray just wants a fair deal for Erick and a chance for the NBA’s discipline to hone his talent into shape. But as players’ rep Myra (Sonja Sohn) tells Ray’s sometime assistant Sam (Deadpool 2’s Zazie Beetz), Ray’s demeanor suggests he has bigger plans, maybe related to the structure of the NBA itself. “They invented a game on top of a game,” Spence tells him, reflecting on the exploitative, racially unbalanced relationship between owners and players. Ray might be trying to invent a game on top of that.

Photo by Peter Andrews / Netflix

It isn’t always easy to follow Ray’s three-dimensional chess moves, but High Flying Bird seldom stops moving long enough for that to matter. Shooting on iPhone — as he did with his previous feature Unsane — Soderbergh seems to be enjoying the freedom to improvise. In one scene, he places the camera behind the garnishes atop a bar. In another, he lingers on Sam’s face as she reacts to a conversation between Erick and Ray.

This time out, Soderbergh used a wide-angle lens created by Moondog Labs, the same company that supplied the lenses used in Sean Baker’s groundbreaking iPhone movie Tangerine. As with Baker’s film, it isn’t always apparent that the film was created through a phone camera. Soderbergh shot Unsane in two weeks, and the cheapness of the look felt like part of the movie’s grungy aesthetic. Here, Soderbergh has different aesthetic aims, exploring the immersive possibilities of the iPhone’s sharply detailed images when shooting in public spaces like restaurants and bars, using its portability to create long walk-and-talk shots, and applying its lightweight feel to intimate close-ups. (Sometimes it’s uncomfortably intimate, as in a scene in which a boorish team owner played by Kyle MacLachlan projects mucus out of his nose as part of a gross power play.)

Photo by Peter Andrews / Netflix

Yet, regardless of how the film looks, Soderbergh’s pacing and gift for editing are what keep the action tight, while McCraney’s crisp dialogue livens up potentially mundane, exposition-heavy exchanges. His script lets the cast — especially Sohn, Beetz, and Holland — tear into one memorable exchange after another, starting with an opening scene in which Ray lectures Erick on his misplaced priorities.

The only problem: the first act lights a bunch of fuses, but only a few erupt into fireworks. The suggestion of a dark secret in Ray’s past is revealed as a belabored bit of backstory, some promised threats never materialize, and some confrontations are sidestepped. Some of these are part of the game of misdirection at the heart of the film. Others seem like acts of willful perversity, as with a mid-film game of one-on-one between Erick and a rival. The setup suggests that High Flying Bird is about to become a full-on sports movie, rather than a movie about the business of sports, and then Soderbergh cuts away before the action even starts.

Photo by Peter Andrews / Netflix

But some of the abandoned setups feel like plotting that could use a little more tightening. Sam gets some of the film’s best lines, as she impatiently counsels Ray while trying to figure out what he’s up to. She almost accidentally falls into a relationship with Erick while shepherding him around New York. But while Beetz is typically terrific, her character mostly drifts through the film in service to other characters’ dramatic needs. It’s also hard not to wish that Sohn’s character had more screen time. This is the rare Netflix movie that feels like it might work even better as an episodic series when so often, the converse is true.

Still, High Flying Bird proves Ray right by letting his passion overpower other concerns. Soderbergh limits the basketball action to TV screens and YouTube clips, but at the heart of the movie is an unmistakable concern for the game, its pitfalls, and its future. And that’s reinforced by interview segments with NBA stars like Donovan Mitchell, Reggie Jackson, and Karl-Anthony Towns. (Soderbergh entertained using a similar device for his aborted version of Moneyball, which was eventually directed by Bennett Miller.) And when Holland eventually lets his brow unfurrow for the first time since the opening scene, he makes the final moments especially satisfying, even if they’ll likely push some viewers to Google sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards, in an attempt to decode a climactic but elliptical reference to his work. But even the way the film’s end is like a “read more about it” research project feels like a conscious part of the design. By its conclusion, Soderbergh has revealed High Flying Bird as less interested in how things end than how they get started.

High Flying Bird launches on North American Netflix (and, as usual for Netflix’s tonier offerings, in a few select theaters) on February 8th, 2019.

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