For better or worse, movies that demonstrate a high degree of intelligence are a rare breed in Hollywood these days. That’s not to say that most films are dumb; just that in the name of bringing in money at the box office, many of them simplify their storytelling so that it can be enjoyed by as broad an audience as possible.
Not playing by those rules is the new Netflix movie High Flying Bird. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), the film centers on Ray Burke (Andre Holland), a sports agent whose biggest client is the recent No. 1 draft pick in the NBA, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). Trouble is, the NBA is in the midst of an extended lockout, meaning neither Erick nor Ray is getting paid.
Ray might have a plan to help put an end to the lockout, but, with the help of his assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz), he must try to out-maneuver power players like player representative Myra (Sonja Sohn), league rep David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), and Emera Umber (Jeryl Prescott), the mother/manager of another top player.
The 90-minute film puts the audience in the strange position of anticipating many events that are never actually shown. Soderbergh and McCraney allude to various consequential moments, but elide them in favor of a lot of speechifying. Oblique conversations in which you can understand every word and still not know what the characters are talking about fill the film.
What is clear is that the filmmakers are playing with a lot of intellectual ideas. They are interested in highlighting the inequities of leagues like the NBA, where players don’t have as much control as owners over their own fate. It’s a slight spoiler, but the viewpoints of civil rights icon Dr. Harry Edwards, who played an instrumental role in the Black Power Salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, play a big part in this film.
Soderbergh also splices in interviews with actual young NBA players like Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Donovan Mitchell, who talk about their early experiences in the league. However, if he was trying to make comparisons between their lives and the story in the film, it doesn’t quite come across as intended.
Also, it seems slightly askew that Soderbergh would be the director to helm a film that has a lot to say about this specific African-American experience. With so many African-American filmmakers getting notice for their top-level work in recent years, having a white man, no matter how talented, lead the way in a film like this just strikes the wrong chord.
Despite the somewhat complicated nature of the film, the performances of Holland, Beetz, and Gregg remain compelling. You may not always comprehend their motivations, but the depth of feeling each demonstrates keeps the emotional aspect of the film on point. MacLachlan and Zachary Quinto, who plays Ray’s boss, are decent in limited roles, but they aren’t showcased enough to make much of an impact.
High Flying Bird is definitely not a film for the masses, so it will be interesting to see if it gains much of a foothold in ever-growing Netflix library. Like me, you may not be smart enough to grasp everything the film is trying to say, but Soderbergh and McCraney get points just for putting them out into the world.