I don’t know basketball from football (one of them involves the term “birdie”, right?), but I was still enthralled by High Flying Bird, a tale of advocating for individuality in the ruthless world of corporate sports. The viewers guide into this world is agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland), a character whose personality screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney establishes beautiful in an opening scene that sees Burke thoughtfully critiquing the financial decisions of one of his clients in rapid-fire dialogue that demonstrates both the characters wit and the kind of immensely enjoyable dialogue we’ll be getting throughout the movie.
Burke and the NBA rookies he represents are struggling right now as the NBA bigwigs engage in a shutdown with the major TV networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, etc.) over the financial rights to air basketball games. While these fatcats just sit around collecting gold coins waiting for the other side to give, basketball players who live by paycheck-to-paycheck are struggling. Through personal experience in regards to how the NBA treated his now deceased cousin, Burke is well aware of how the NBA view’s its own basketball players but he’s got a plan to shake things up and remind the NBA the value of the individual players whose livelihood its higher-ups tend to ignore.
Burke’s plan eventually involves modern-day streaming services like Netflix and Amazon while also taking potshots long-standing media establishments that diminish individuality, a turn in his character that seems to (perhaps unintentionally) echo Soderbergh’s talk about how modern major movie studios are crushing the spirit of artists. But just as I didn’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy “High Flying Bird”, you don’t have to know Soderbergh’s attitudes on the modern-day system of filmmaking to get a kick out of this movie. McCraney’s consistently excellent script, for instance, is a universally appealing creation that probes its primary theme of how to assert the importance of individuality in a complex system inherently meant to diminish individuality in a thoughtful fashion. Similarly successful in McCraney’s screenplay is the roster of delightful characters he creates to both inhabit the story and explore the aforementioned primary theme of “High Flying Bird”.
Supporting characters Myra (Sonja Sogn) and especially scene-stealer Spencer (Bill Duke) get to establish so much highly pronounced personality and depth in their screentime while Burke’s former assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz) is a delight to watch since the script gets some creative dialogue exchanges out of her being the only person who can actually go toe-to-toe with Burke. These well-written roles are handed off to performers who really shine in these parts, particularly Bill Duke who does an exceptional job portraying a character who has no time for rule-breakers on his court, a personality trait that results in some amusing comedy as well as surprisingly effective pathos.
Both the writing of the characters and the performances in “High Flying Bird” are universally strong, but the lead character of Burke is an especially well-done creation. Ray Burke is the kind of confident with a capital C character you can’t help but be transfixed by. He’s always calculating and keeping a few steps ahead of whoever he’s interacting with and that’s a side of the character Andre Holland’s sublime lead performance brings to life in a fantastic fashion. Holland, has done plenty of memorable supporting films performances in the past but his first lead role in a movie shows a whole new side of him as a performer that thoroughly impressed. He constantly oozes the kind of effortless assuredness that classic Hollywood movie stars are made of and that fits the character of Burke like a glove.
Of course, it’s no surprise to hear an ensemble cast gets put to good use under the direction of Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh doesn’t just bring back his talent for getting great performances out of actors though, he also retains his penchant (established on his prior feature, Unsane) for filming entire movies with an iPhone. I totally forgot that unique facet of the production a few minutes into the runtime of “High Flying Bird”, the movie looks highly professional and there’s a number of impressive tracking shots that get pulled off with a device I used to use primarily to play “Cut the Rope”. Needless to say, seeing such technological innovations from Soderbergh (which build off of past movies shot on iPhones like “Tangerine”) in the name of directing great scripts like the one Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote for “High Flying Bird” makes me happier than a basketball coach saying “Ally-oop” (I think I used that basketball phrase right?)
“High Flying Bird” is now streaming on Netflix