If nothing else, Netflix has proven itself a perfect platform for releasing films like High Flying Bird. Steven Soderbergh‘s latest, a breezy sports drama shot entirely on an iPhone, represents and unveils the hidden beauty in Netflix’s system as a film uncompromisingly cinematic yet wholly unsuited for the inevitable failure of a traditional theater release. Unlike Netflix’s previous major film this year, Dan Gilroy‘s insufferably boring Velvet Buzzsaw (which coincidentally also premiered in Park City less than a month before its wide streaming release), High Flying Bird feels nothing like a television movie. Rather than the corporate uniformity of that film’s aesthetics, High Flying Bird is pure electricity, flowing from scene to scene with an anxious energy despite being driven almost exclusively by dialogue. The film reminds one of the importance of a sharp script, and utterly denounces the common perception that conversation can’t be cinematic.
High Flying Bird begins during the peak of a fictional NBA lockout. No one in the industry has been allowed to work for months, and the money in everyone except the owners’ wallets is thinning out. We open on a lunch conference between athletic agent Ray Burke (André Holland) and one of his key clients Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), a popular NBA draft pick before the lockout began. Ray scolds Erick for taking out a loan before having his own credit card denied by the restaurant- he’ll later learn that his agency is all but ready to fire him. Soderbergh drops us into this world of sports business with limited context, allowing us to infer the intricacies of its “game played on top of the game” largely on our own. As someone who has little to no curiosity for sports nor its business practices, High Flying Bird managed to easily steal my interest for a brisk 90 minutes. Much of that comes from Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s (Moonlight) witty script, which effortlessly snakes around every word and inflection of its principal players- who are each in their own right charismatic and comfortably at home in the world it creates for them. A great deal of the film’s intrigue also comes from Soderbergh’s confident direction, which has grown immensely from his first entry in iPhone canon Unsane.
Everything about High Flying Bird is just so irresistibly likable and poignant, especially its cast. As guileful agent Ray, André Holland is the clear star of the show, a charismatic Michael Clayton for the sports world, playing a three-dimensional chess game only he can see. He’s exhausted and haunted by a past blunder, but reliably moving forward by the beat of his own drum. Zazie Beetz, Sonja Sohn, and Bill Duke are also quite wonderful; Duke is especially charming as a youth basketball coach that admonishes every person in the film that compares the power NBA owners exert over their players to the institution of slavery. Kyle MacLachlan even makes a brief appearance as a thoroughly unpleasant team owner; his presence doesn’t even feel particularly necessary, but you can’t help but enjoy how much fun he seems to be having with the role.
Ever since Unsane, Steven Soderbergh has vowed to shoot all his future films on iPhone, citing the artistic freedom they provide as justification for the admittedly bizarre career move. Whether one approves or not of Soderbergh’s shift to the modern equivalent of shooting on video tape, it’s impossible not to admire how the digital aesthetic shifts based on the context of the film. In Unsane, the iPhone cinematography imbued the film with an unsettling “home video” feeling, trapping the audience in a grainy Kafkaesque nightmare alongside alongside its principal character. In High Flying Bird, the effect is entirely different, more an energetic expression of the film’s shifting power dynamics than anything else. Ray attempts to restructure the NBA’s power pyramid to better the positions of himself and the actual players. Likewise, Soderbergh attempts to demonstrate that filmmaking doesn’t have to be an unavailable pursuit for those less financially fortunate. Though the camera of an iPhone may never match the visual integrity of real film or professional digital (rooms with an abundance of white light still tend to wash out the picture), its use in High Flying Bird is startlingly appropriate from the first frame.
Perhaps the single most admirable quality of High Flying Bird is its modesty. There is no traditional sense of an auteur ego behind the camera, despite having been spawned from such an accomplished director as Soderbergh. At a humble 90-minute runtime, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome by a second, efficiently understanding precisely where and how its narrative needs to proceed. It’s an interesting class of film, a fast-talking excursion that’s all but extinct due to the prolific age of television that has replaced it. Out of all of Netflix’s original films, both awful (Mute, Velvet Buzzsaw) and glorious (Roma), High Flying Bird feels the most comfortably at home on the platform, and represents another enjoyably succinct entry into Steven Soderbergh’s recent filmography.