High Flying Bird review: Steven Soderbergh’s Netflix drama joins the roster of passable basketball films
The release is further proof that the streaming service now commands as much attention as Hollywood
Director: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Caleb McLaughlin, Zazie Beetz, Andre Holland, Zachary Quinto. Running time: 90 mins
Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma really brought out the bores. It was on Netflix, but for the full effect of its grand cinematography you simply had to see it in the cinema. I caved. I spent a month’s subscription fee to sit in a room full of the worst kind of performative laughers, sighing and aahing at all the correct moments. Still, good film. After that big screen spectacular, to balance things, now we have a Netflix film by a famous director, in this case Steven Soderbergh, seemingly designed for the smallest of screens.
There’s lots to like about High Flying Bird, not least that despite being a basketball film it contains almost no basketball. What a blessing. Sport in sports films is often bad news. When commentators on live games talk about “drama” they simply mean the result is in the balance. Sport as depicted onscreen, especially when we know how it ends, is hardly ever dramatic. Anyone who disagrees is welcome to write in, on the condition that before they do so they rewatch Matt Damon playing rugby in Invictus.
Even so, during the opening scene, I had my fears. In the restaurant at the top of The Standard, High Line hotel in New York, veteran agent Ray (Andre Holland) starts berating his client, rookie Erick (Melvin Gregg), who has fallen in with a loan shark. There is a Jerry Maguire-ish aspect to Ray, and you suspect he will somehow find a way to do something that is right but also profitable.
Erick needs the money because the NBA is in a “lockout”, where the controllers of the league cannot agree on a pay deal with the players’ union. The league’s stars are well looked after, but every cheque is essential for those who are starting out, like Erick and his rival Jamero (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley, which even a Brit can recognise is a fine name for someone playing a basketballer).
As the detente continues, Ray realises that in the smartphone era the networks no longer have a monopoly on sports content. He alarms the NBA and sows the seeds of something bigger. Technology might yet have a democratising effect on culture.
Adding another layer to this is the fact Soderbergh shot the whole thing on an iPhone, using a little clip-on lens. He did the same for his last film, Unsane. Someone ought to buy that man a camera! If nothing else, viewers ought to feel embarrassed by their own Instagram stories. The lack of camera trickery puts more pressure on the dialogue, and the script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who won the Oscar for Moonlight, sometimes cracks, especially when it tries to grandstand – and nobody could accuse it of wearing its racial message too lightly.
But the cast helps make up for these flaws: Sonja Sohn as the union boss, Bill Duke as the embittered old coach Spencer, Zachary Quinto as Ray’s oleaginous agency superior, Kyle MacLachlan as a slippery tycoon. Perhaps saving on fancy equipment frees up the budget for actors. High Flying Bird just about rolls in off the rim, even if it’s not quite a slam dunk. Along with Space Jam and Hoop Dreams, it joins the roster of passable net-flicks.