By Casey Campbell
I’m going to open this up with the fact that I hated director Steven Soderbergh’s previous film Unsane. It was famously shot on iPhone, which I viewed as a gimmick rather than a storytelling component, and it looked like shit. Mind you, they released it theatrically and I saw it on a large screen and the picture was grainy and ugly. Whether or not that informed my initial viewing of his most recent film High Flying Bird is unclear. I really hated Unsane. But I’ve liked his other works (even Kafka, which I’ve never heard a single soul talk about) so I gave it a shot. It’s a Netflix original.
Like Unsane, it’s shot on iPhone, as opposed to some big expensive professional movie camera. Unlike Unsane, it actually looks good (and has an engaging script).
High Flying Bird is about an ambitious talent agent in the midst of an NBA lockout looking for a new star. Even though Soderbergh didn’t write it, it must be said that it is very much a Soderbergh movie, so the short summary doesn’t explain everything that goes on. In fact, it was written by Moonlight story writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, which explains why all of the dialogue is so punchy and interesting. I have no interest in sports really. Yet, this movie about the nitty gritty of contracts and legality that underlies the sport itself is a compelling human story about ambition. It also seems like the kind of script that offers extra care to it’s central sport in many subtle (or possibly unsubtle, again I know little) quips.
The quips include a offhand joke about Wilt Chamberlain’s famously high body count—when it comes to casual sex—that even I was able to get. I can’t imagine how many casual things an actual fan would be able to chew on. At the same time, the witty dialogue is perfectly tailored to the delightfully scene stealing André Holland. The dude is amazing in every single project he’s a part of. He was a standout in the Soderbergh directed Cinemax series The Knick, and delivered a perfectly melancholy conclusion to the previously mentioned Moonlight. If Soderbergh and McCraney are important pieces to the puzzle, Holland stands out as the glue putting the whole thing together.
Another rather important element of the film that shouldn’t be avoided is the racial background to the story. There is a lot of discussion on personhood, blackness, and the way the NBA has seemingly cashed in on and exploited the players in their organization. I know little about the NBA, as I stated, but this extra level of the story added a nice layer of conflict and personal intrigue to an already personal story.
This and Soderbergh’s previous movie shot on iPhone have an interesting relationship with the technology that creates the images. There are certain plot beats that rely on interpersonal technology, specifically through the use of phones and social media, that speak volumes. In Unsane, a possible stalking via technology angle could’ve brought forth a compelling and underlying fear to the story that shows it’s cards way too soon. But here, there’s a bit more extrapolation. Twitter is used to stoke a fire under someone’s ass and stir attention. Netflix itself is mentioned as a way of earning someone a pedestal for public consumption. It’s clear to me that there’s a connection with the way fame is earned now and the way the film was shot, even if it may not seem as blunt as that. In fact that entire angle isn’t necessary to make this film work, though it really does. It looks great, with some nice classic Peter Andrews shot composition (Peter Andrews is Soderbergh’s alias when shooting his own films and I’m not sure why). The only times the shooting falters is when there isn’t enough lighting in barely three or four indoor shots and the dark colors get muddled in the background. Otherwise, even with the camera used at the top of my mind, I barely noticed.
High Flying Bird is a movie that won me over through sheer ambition and clear storytelling. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about the players in the NBA, or how their organization is run, but this movie made all of that decidedly interesting. I may not watch basketball, but the way the business behind the sport is portrayed was unlike traditional sports stories. I cared about the characters and couldn’t wait to see what was next. It’s a Netflix original, meaning it’s streaming there now.