High Flying Bird is ostensibly about basketball, but it’s truly about religion. There are Bibles and doctrines and liturgies. There are Pharisees and true believers, prayers and prophets. “I love the Lord and all of His black people” serves as this religion’s creed, the verbal reminder which reminds and re-centers the person who speaks it about what truly matters in this life. And “this life” is the multi-billion dollar industry side of the NBA, Basketball as Big Business.
The prophetic voice in this religion is sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland), a gifted communicator and strategic thinker trying to help his rookie client Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) navigate an ongoing lockout which has left both players and team owners at a stalemate. Those expecting a traditional sports film will be disappointed. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), this is an Ocean’s 11-esque caper driven more by dialogue than dunks, verbal maneuvering than athletic prowess. There are so many one-on-one basketball battles here, yet they nearly all occur in skyscraper offices or New York bars rather than on the court.
Filmed entirely on an iPhone 8, High Flying Bird is more akin to Soderbergh’s smaller cinematic formal exercises (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, Unsane) rather than his expansive blockbusters (the Ocean films, Logan Lucky). The opening scene of Ray and Erick discussing the lockout in a fancy high-end restaurant begins with a long, swift tracking shot from a skyscraper window to their table, followed by a montage of various camera angles capturing their conversation. The fast-paced Sorkinian dialogue mixed with the digital iPhone images give it an intimate-yet-ornamental aesthetic, at-once authentic and artificial, like an Instagram selfie. I found this iPhone aesthetic and Soderbergh’s semi-frantic editing to be more invigorating than distracting, but I can see how it wouldn’t work for everyone. It matches Ray’s attempts to keep ahead of the game, his behind-the-scenes manipulation of the circumstances and expectations of everyone around him, a benevolent con artist with a pastoral heart.
This pastoral nature comes out in the mentorship between not only Ray and Erick, but Ray and Sam (Zazie Beetz), Ray’s former assistant who keeps following along with his scheme as a true disciple, reminding him often that “I don’t work for you.” Yet she persists, watching and learning from Ray while making her own life decisions, confident yet unpretentious as Ray tries to keep all of these various spinning balls in balance. The Ray-Sam relationship is a wonderful picture of healthy male-female mentorship and friendship; it’s not reduced to romance or father-daughter tropes as these co-equals spur each other on in their visions. Then there’s Spence (Bill Duke), the aged coach hosting a local basketball event for teens; David Starr (Zackary Quinto), Ray’s boss at the sports agency, who relies on Ray’s expertise even as he is quick to fire him; Myra (Sonja Sohn), a fiery rep for the players; and David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), a smarmy rep for the owners. The two David S. characters–over-confident wealthy white dudes in expensive suits–feel like they walked right out of The Wolf of Wall Street, and it’s cathartic to watch Ray outwit them both. Yet it’s Bill Duke as Spence who gives a phenomenal supporting performance; his eyes and posture communicate so much, and he’s both intimidating and warm-hearted, just as a good coach should be. Indeed, High Flying Bird is a film about coaches and mentors–pastors and prophets–in the religion of basketball, how a sport of liberation slowly turned into a consumerist institution, even as the spirit lives on in the love of the game.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8128188/