High Flying Bird: A Sports Film Without Sports

André Holland as Ray Burke in High Flying Bird, directed by Steven Soderbergh. Photo by Peter Andrews.

High Flying Bird shows that director Steven Soderbergh isn’t afraid of being an innovative filmmaker even if his retirement was premature.

Soderbergh’s new film takes place during a pro basketball lockout.  More on the lockout later.  This is where we find sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland) in quite the pickle.  If the game isn’t in session, he can’t quite bring in the money to fund his career.  So he does the next best thing with the help of his clients– take the game back for themselves.  Maybe there’s some commentary here on just how lucrative sports contracts are or maybe this is reading too much between the lines.  It’s just a matter of whether or not he can get away with it in a 72-hour period.  Of course, all bets are off once video gets leaked to sports media.  But hey, it wasn’t for the lack of trying!

Even taking a look at team owner David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), he’s not really a villain.  He just happens to be a team owner and the wrong time.

In 2013, Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from film but this retirement did not lost long.  The director gave us a heist film with Logan Lucky and the thrilling iPhone-shot Unsane.  Now he’s back once more with High Flying Bird.  This is the director’s third film in just under a two year period.  All of this being said, we’re all the better for it.

It may not feel like it but it’s still less than a decade since the NBA’s last lockout–the 161-day lockout that lasted from July 1, 2011 until December 8, 2011.  If you’d like, just pretend that this film is taking place during that lockout for posterity.  It actually isn’t given the cameos from NBA players Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Donovan Mitchell.  Ironically, two of these NBA players went to Kentucky schools for college basketball.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into this.  Should the NBA not work out, the former Kentucky Wildcats star may just have an acting career down the line.  Towns can also be seen in What Men Want.

One the one hand, High Flying Bird is very much a sports movie but with way less sports than a sports film.  On the other hand, perhaps Soderbergh is trying to say something else entirely.  It certainly feels like it’s one of those movies that we need to read between the lines.  This is never more important than in a changing media landscape where the streamers are making a play for Oscar hold.  To be fair, the script was written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney so I’m likely giving Soderbergh too much credit here.

DIRECTOR:  Steven Soderbergh
SCREENWRITER:  Tarell Alvin McCraney
CAST:  André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Glenn Fleshler, Jeryl Prescott, Justin Hurtt-Dunkley, Caleb McLaughlin, Bobbi Bordley, with Kyle MacLachlan and Bill Duke

Following the world premiere during the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival, Netflix released High Flying Bird on February 8, 2019. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.