Movie Review: ‘HIGH FLYING BIRD’ – Steven Soderbergh’s fadeaway swish

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

HIGH FLYING BIRD

TV-MA, 90 minutes.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: André Holland, Melvin Gregg, Eddie Tavares, Farah Bala, Zazie Beetz, Bill Duke, Zachary Quinto, Caleb McLaughlin and Kyle MacLachlan

Controlling the narrative is something that both entertainers and public figures work to achieve. And while the advent of social media has allowed some measure of control, oftentimes it can easily backfire. For athletes, it can be a whole different ballgame. Out of all the major sporting leagues, the game of basketball allows for the most personality to be shared on and off the court. The NBA dominates both the NFL and Major League Baseball when it comes to social media. Endorsements are more lucrative because of a player’s exposure in foreign markets. When Yao Ming signed with the Houston Rockets the year he was drafted, Houston jerseys and memorabilia were widely sought in Shanghai.

With greater exposure comes greater responsibility. That may sound like a quote from SPIDER-MAN, but in this case, it pertains to athletes today, not a friendly, neighborhood web-slinger. An athlete’s perception can be heralded and draw ire by both the public and team owners. This is especially true of rookies. The new kids. The young bucks. Taking their skills to the professional ranks. For a top draft pick, the sky is the limit. Expectations are greater than what you would find in a certain Charles Dickens classic. Where it becomes less about the game being played on the court and more about the game on top of the game. Money, playing time, social media followers.    

HIGH FLYING BIRD is a crafty drama about the modern athlete, how they are being played, and turning the tables on the corporate hierarchy of professional sports. When the NBA enters into a lockout sports agent Ray (Andre Holland) struggles to keep operations afloat. Lunch with a client turns into a game of chance. (Will my credit card be accepted or denied?) If his players don’t earn a check, Ray doesn’t get paid. His biggest client is recent No. 1 pick Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). But Erick’s made the foolish choice of taking out a short-term loan that he planned to pay back once the lockout was over. Erick is broke. He’s hungry to play and hungry to get paid and prove his worth. In sports, this is what’s called neutralizing your opponent. Only it’s team owners and the players fighting over pay disbursement and percentages.

For director Steven Soderbergh, it seems like he’s unconsciously exploring his career in Hollywood with HIGH FLYING BIRD – where it has been and where it is going. Arriving on the scene with the independent breakthrough SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, Soderbergh has since moved beyond 35mm and video tapes to iPhones and Netflix. He’s been on the fringe and done studio gigs. He’s retired only to un-retire. Crossing over from film to television, working on his craft like a basketball player works on his jump shot.

Working outside of the system allows Soderbergh to control his product. Erick Scott doesn’t have that luxury with the lockout. He can’t go overseas to play basketball. He can’t even play at a promotional event with other out-of-work players without it being considered “out of bounds” by the league. So, what is the rook to do? Have Ray stir the pot.

Ray is a smooth operator. His fast-talking skills allow him to dribble past NBA Union reps (like THE WIRE’s Sonja Sohn) and the head of the owners group (Kyle MacLachlan) as they backpedal. But what game is Ray playing? Bringing an end to the lockout or beginning a new evolution of the hardwood classic?

That’s the inherent brilliance. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s script is lean but verbose. As someone who can recall lines of movie dialogue like a sports fan can recall a player’s batting average from a certain season, I have enough sports knowledge to know that something isn’t quite right in terms of those who manage and those who play the game. Minority owners in professional sports is like finding a unicorn in a forest. A clear majority of sports figures are black, particularly in basketball. Where pro sports look to maximize TV and ad revenue, and where teams market the hell out of their stars, it is the players who are compromised, unable to do anything without league approval. The corporate spiel may be that it’s to protect the sanctity of the game, but the only sacred ground is the field of play, which has been sullied by greed and profit. 

HIGH FLYING BIRD is top-tier Soderbergh. The film, much like the director’s shooting style (using an iPhone, like he did previously with UNSANE), is about immediacy, and fighting the establishment. The window of opportunity for a pro athlete is very small. To ensure their talent is not squandered, it’s not surprising that they have taken a greater interest in promoting themselves with the platform that social media affords. Sporting institutions may profit off their physical abilities but controlling the narrative of one’s individuality that is for the athlete to decide, and is another game entirely.

Grade: B+

HIGH FLYING BIRD is now available to stream on Netflix.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.