Okay, wait, already, a correction: High Flying Bird isn't exactly a basketball movie. There's some basketball in it! But mostly, Steven Soderbergh's latest is about what one character calls the "game on top of a game"—the intense, complex, and rarely glimpsed machinations that determine how the multi-billion dollar sports industry rewards and exploits both its players and its fans.
It's some of the same territory that the Rock messes with on HBO's Ballers, but instead of Ballers' lightweight tone and NFL pandering, High Flying Bird digs into the people—the agents, players, and owners—at the core of professional basketball. The results aren't generally flattering, though a smart script (by Moonlight's Tarell Alvin McCraney) and Soderbergh's ever-sharp direction and editing keep the movie slickly clicking along, brisk and bold. It doesn't hurt that the way Soderbergh made High Flying Bird—as with Unsane, he shot the film on an iPhone—gives the whole thing a clear, clean, fly-on-the wall feel that veers around with both camera angles and structure. In some of High Flying Bird's best moments, NBA players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell pop up, interrupting the film's narrative to reflect on the challenges and intricacies of surviving the NBA.
The Knick's André Holland plays Ray, an agent who's stuck treading water in the midst of an NBA lockout. Ray's rookie client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg, who also played American Vandal's basketball prodigy), is antsy to start playing and start making money—in the meantime, he's taking bad loans and starting Twitter beefs with one of his future teammates—while Ray's former assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz), is finding her footing in an industry with Game of Thrones levels of greed and backstabbing. For all the money involved in the plot, though, the low-fi High Flying Bird is generally a series of scenes of people talking in rooms—which, hey, no complaints. "What's nice to me about High Flying Bird dropping essentially 30 years to the week of sex lies & videotape is, it's another two-people-in-a-room movie," Soderbergh recently told Deadline. "That’s how I started, and I’ve always believed that no matter how big a sort of historical context that you're trying to portray in a story, you can ultimately trace it back to two people in a room."
Soderbergh's reliable skill aside, it's Holland, Gregg, and Beetz who end up with much of High Flying Bird's glory, turning in performances that're clever, vulnerable, and—most importantly—surprising. The NBA and all its ugliness hangs heavy over High Flying Bird—particularly the unavoidable specters of race and class that permeate and corrupt nearly every element of professional sports. But Soderbergh's film succeeds by keeping its cameras (or its iPhones, whatever) pointed at the people who work in that industry, making deals and figuring out how to get by, day by day and season by season. Some of that comes down to playing ball. Most of it comes down to two people, talking in a room.
High Flying Bird is now streaming on Netflix.