"You give everything, or it does not matter to you, man," retired-basketball-player-turned-youth-coach Spence (Bill Duke) tells sports agent Ray (André Holland) early in High flying bird. Spence preaches to the convert, but while Ray enters into some dangerous negotiations, the sermon looks good for his mind anyway. A new Netflix drama directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Moonlight playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, High flying bird is dominated by Ray's belief that passion and commitment should go beyond all other concerns. Money, respect, power: they are all secondary, the by-products to do everything you do according to the highest possible standards, regardless of the forces you are being subjected to.
It is no coincidence that Ray's creed is reminiscent of the filmmaking of Soderbergh. The film is not just about striving for excellence in abstract. Although it takes time to reveal its true nature, this is just as much a political film as Soderbergh has ever made. He and McCraney seem to be interested in nothing less than how deep-rooted power structures can be separated by those at their lower levels.
For Ray it is a combination of mischief and deceit. An agent that spends most of it High flying bird in what seems to be a professional downward spiral, Ray is endlessly disappointed that not enough of the people around him share his fervor in caring about doing things well – not Erick (American Vandal& # 39; S Melvin Gregg), a powerful star who makes poor financial decisions, because an NBA lockout prevents him from starting what his rookie season would be; not the boss of Ray (Zachary Quinto), who is shocked to hear that Ray has reserved a percentage of his commission as a rain money fund for his clients; and certainly not the NBA owners, who gamble that they can push hurt athletes who want to play into trouble and earn before their time runs out, let alone what their exclusion does with the game and those who love it.
But passion is a fragile thing, perhaps even for Ray, who spends a large part of the film in heated, sometimes frustrated conversations as he tries to convince, pressurize or mislead those who do not share his vision. The exact form of that vision is only fully revealed in the final moments of the film. At first it seems that Ray just wants a fair deal for Erick and a chance for the discipline of the NBA to sharpen his talent. But as the representative of the player Myra (Sonja Sohn) Ray tells that he is once an assistant Sam (Deadpool 2& # 39; S Zazie Beetz), Ray's behavior suggests that he has larger plans, perhaps related to the structure of the NBA itself. "They invented a game on top of a game," Spence says, thinking about the exploitative, racially unbalanced relationship between owners and players. Maybe Ray is trying to find a game out there.
It is not always easy to follow the three-dimensional chess movements of Ray, but High flying bird rarely stops long enough to move. Photographing on an iPhone – as he did with his previous function Unsane – Soderbergh seems to enjoy the freedom to improvise. In one scene he places the camera behind the garnishes on top of a beam. In another, he stays on Sams face while she responds to a conversation between Erick and Ray.
This time, Soderbergh used a wide-angle lens made by Moondog Labs, the same company that supplied the lenses used in Sean Baker's pioneering iPhone movie. Mandarin. Just like with Baker & # 39; s movie, it is not always clear that the film was made with a telephone camera. Soderbergh shot Unsane in two weeks, and the cheapness of the look felt as part of the grungy aesthetic of the film. Here, Soderbergh has different aesthetic goals, exploring the immersive possibilities of the sharply detailed photos of the iPhone when photographing in public spaces such as restaurants and bars, using their portability for long walk-and-talk -shooting and applying the light feeling to intimate close-ups. ups. (Sometimes it is unpleasantly intimate, as in a scene where a peasant team owner played by Kyle MacLachlan projects mucus from his nose as part of a coarse power game.)
Anyway, no matter what the film looks like, the pace and the ability to edit Soderbergh keeps the action tight, while the fresh dialogues of McCraney make live everyday exhibitions. His script sends the cast – especially Sohn, Beetz and Holland – in a memorable exchange after the other, starting with an opening scene in which Ray Erick reads out his misguided priorities.
The only problem: the first act lights a number of fuses, but only a few bursts in fireworks. The suggestion of a dark secret in the past of Ray is revealed as a belabelled piece of background story, some promised threats are never made and some confrontations are bypassed. Some of these are part of the game of deception in the heart of the film. Others resemble acts of deliberate perversity, such as a one-on-one mid-movie game between Erick and a rival. The setup suggests that High flying bird is about to become a full-on sports film, rather than a film about sports activities, and then Soderbergh cuts away before the action starts.
But some of the abandoned setups feel like a plot that could use a bit more tightening. Sam gets some of the best rules from the film, as she advises Ray impatiently as she tries to find out what he's up to. She almost accidentally gets into a relationship with Erick as she leads him through New York. But although Beetz is typically great, her character mostly drives the film to serve the dramatic needs of other characters. It is also difficult not to wish Sohn & # 39; s character to have more screen time. This is the rare Netflix film that feels like it can work even better as an episodic series, while the opposite is true.
Still, High flying bird Ray proves right by letting his passion overwhelm other concerns. Soderbergh limits the basketball action to TV screens and YouTube clips, but the core of the film is an unmistakable concern for the game, the pitfalls and the future. And that is reinforced by interviews with NBA stars such as Donovan Mitchell, Reggie Jackson and Karl-Anthony Towns. (Soderbergh entertained himself with a similar device for his chipped version of Moneyball, which was eventually directed by Bennett Miller.) And when the Netherlands finally reveals his forehead for the first time since the opening scene, he makes the final moments particularly satisfying, even if they are likely to push some viewers to Google sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards, in an attempt to decipher a climax but elliptical reference to his work. But even the way the end of the movie looks like a & # 39; read more & # 39; research project, feels like a conscious part of the design. Soderbergh has revealed through his conclusion High flying bird because they are less interested in how things end than how they get started.
High flying bird launches on 8 February 2019 on North American Netflix (and, as is customary for the Netflix show range, in a few selected theaters).