Characters go one-on-one both on and off the court in director Steven Soderbergh’s new sports drama “High Flying Bird,” though not much basketball’s being played.
There’s a ferocity to the head-to-head dialogue in the screenplay from playwright and “Moonlight” creator Tarell Alvin McCraney that seems to mimic intense showdowns Michael Jordan might have had with defenders in his heyday.
“High Flying Bird” aggressively attacks racial and class warfare in the high-rises, not on the streets. It’s a film where words come with searing precision to provoke response and engage an audience unprepared for the layers within this simple fictionalized sports story.
McCraney’s screenplay focuses on NBA player agent Ray Burke, forced to balance a naïve top rookie waiting to enter the league with the demands of his cash-strapped agency amid a lockout between players and owners that’s stopped basketball dead in its tracks for nearly six months.
Soderbergh’s film is “Michael Clayton” in the style of “Jerry Maguire” with the postmodern cinematography of an iPhone 8.
“High Flying Bird” cuts against the grain at every turn, defying convention with its rapid fire, two-handed dialogue and masterful use of place to frame scenes and individual performers.
At the forefront of it all is André Holland, who embraces the film’s kinetic energy as Ray, constantly moving his mouth, his body in brisk strides of intent, his frantically churning mind or some combination of the three.
From the opening scene, “Bird” soars off the intensity of Holland’s performance, setting a rapid fire pace that carries across the entire film with casual sophistication and confidence.
The other men of the film deliver solid work: Kyle MacLachlan as a smarmy yet charming team owner, newcomer Melvin Gregg as Ray’s top rookie and an outstanding Bill Duke as area youth basketball coach Spence, whose no-nonsense attitude provides both moments of humor and levity to the film.
But it’s the women of “Bird” that are the best surprises, especially given how lacking roles for women are in sports films.
The time in character development given to Zazie Beetz’s Sam, an assistant agent working under Ray, and Sonja Sohn’s Myra, a lawyer representing the players’ union, is unprecedented within the genre and gives “Bird” a tonal sense of balance and depth to the story that is tremendously compelling.
Both Beetz and Sohn challenge Holland’s Ray in a way that elevates the overall performances, yet it’s a quiet tea with Ray opposite an all star’s mother (played by an unforgettable Jeryl Prescott) that provides one of the film’s most memorable moments.
With the iPhone and a singular wide angle lens, Soderbergh is able to frame scenes in 360 degrees, giving viewers a full geography of each setting in a matter of seconds.
A dynamic, pivotal scene late in “Bird” slowly illustrates this freedom as Ray reflects with Spence while shooting hoops in an unbroken camera pan around the court.
Using the wide angle in close, more intimate shots gives “Bird” a harsh, unique contrast to break up the established visual dynamic of the film. This keeps the viewer interest piqued while maintaining the importance and integrity of McCraney’s screenplay.
Soaring wide angle shots remove the audience from the urgency of the action and give a sense of anonymity to its bold characters, their machinations made small by the mere placement of the lens. This also allows the world of New York to play an increased role in the film, engulfing and ever present on a moment by moment basis.
The film is a brisk 90 minutes, sharply and deftly edited by Soderbergh to accentuate the tempo of McCraney’s verbose dialogue, reorienting viewers to examine scenes from new perspectives as words glide off the tip of the tongue.
The only signposts – stable, static moments to break up a film constantly on the move physically and verbally – are black and white interviews segments with young NBA stars Reggie Jackson, Donovan Mitchell and Karl-Anthony Towns describing their memories of entering the league as a player and businessman.
“Bird” is intentionally, almost arrogantly complex and vague in its banter and plot. Audiences aren’t supposed to have all the answers on a first viewing.
Seemingly from nowhere, the first truly great film of the year has arrived in a very 2019 fashion, from an iPhone straight to the streaming service Netflix and back onto a phone again, just like it was meant to be seen.