“High Flying Bird” opens on a New York skyline before the chatter of conversation beckons the camera down a hallway and into a restaurant. A meeting between NBA up-and-comer Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) and his agent Ray Burke (André Holland) is underway. With the league in a lockout, Burke roasts Scott at a rat-a-tat pace, condescending him with a laundry list of reasons disproving his delusions of economic anxiety. Eventually, Scott can only interrupt by muttering, “Yo, stop lowkey stupiding me.”
It’s an electric opening for a story about young passion being controlled and commodified by a business acumen that doesn’t have its best interests in mind. Director Steven Soderbergh has spent a prolific career investigating the role of independence in a world ruled by the dehumanizing will of capitalist institutions.
Though “High Flying Bird” draws inspiration from the 2011 NBA lockout (never mentioned by name; the film was made without the league’s cooperation), basketball largely remains an abstract within the film, a topic of conversation for numerous power games. It’s a movie concerned with labor rights that doesn’t portray labor in it. For this reason, the plotting can be clandestine, which is the film’s central weakness.
One of the most effective devices in “High Flying Bird” is its interspersing of documentary interviews with recent draft picks. These three rookies recount their own troubles and trepidations during their own headlong dives into the cutthroat business of professional sports. It’s the hearts of such young men, snatched out of high school to fuel a system they aren’t taught the ins-and-outs of, that make up the most resonant thread in the film, and one that isn’t given its due time.
Still, closed-door negotiations seem to be the name of the game in “High Flying Bird.” Like George Clooney’s Danny Ocean, Holland’s Burke is a protagonist in the typical Soderberghian mold — a motor-mouthed smooth operator figuring out how to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes to get himself out of a corner. As the prominent youth coach Spencer (an exceptional Bill Duke) puts it, Burke is trying to beat “a game on top of a game.” With money drying up for everyone except the team owners, Burke, alongside his loyal but enterprising ex-assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz), wields social media to bring the players’ talents directly to their audience — cutting out the white billionaires that claim ownership to their image.
After Burke’s opening conversation with Scott, “Bird” descends to the ground, following Burke as he commutes back to his office. It’s a rare sort of interlude for the film, which mostly unfolds in high-rise apartments and offices, aligning one’s power with how infrequently they must return to the earth. Negotiations take place against backdrops of vast negative space, imbuing them with both godly omnipotence and remoteness from the world below that they control.
Soderbergh continues to evolve the nuances of his employment of iPhone photography in “High Flying Bird.” The director’s previous film, last year’s brilliant “Unsane,” transported grimy Giallo intrigue into hideously pixelated imagery, its murky fluorescent lighting and hazy deep focus photography enhancing the psychological terror. By contrast, “High Flying Bird” provides a sleek look, with its shooting of this steel-and-glass safari in angular widescreen that captures the byzantine nature of this industry. One-on-one conversations are observed from various nooks and crannies, providing plenty of different viewpoints that snap together with the interchangeable ease of LEGO bricks.
This rigorous, no-frills form makes for a fascinating match to Tarell McCraney’s tantalizingly verbose script. As in his previous collaboration with Barry Jenkins on Best Picture winner “Moonlight,” McCraney’s history as a playwright lends a rich theatricality to the film’s performances. As the spacious, poetic slant he embraced in “Moonlight” matched Jenkins’ lyricism, he skewers his rhythms to complement Soderbergh’s pithy wit. The dialogue moves so rapidly it crackles, further enriching the immediacy to the digital sheen provided by the iPhone photography.
Soderbergh’s economic shooting style fosters a succinct, inornate form that’s a fitting platform for a story about shattering conventions using one’s versatility and resourcefulness. It is a movie that’s slightly less than the sum of its parts, most noticeably with regard to its air-balled buzzer-beater of an ending — which feels like the start of the third act of a more revolutionary story.
For such a breezy watch, it ends abruptly, resigned to watching the system sweat instead of taking it down entirely. Still, it’s unfair to expect a drama to resolve every political obstacle it sets up for itself. And though this isn’t Soderbergh’s strongest outing, is it not enough to see a superlative talent at the top of his game?
“High Flying Bird” is now streaming on Netflix.