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Review: Steven Soderbergh’s ‘High Flying Bird’ is a dazzling examination of issues in pro basketball

HIGH FLYING BIRD
André Holland in the movie “High Flying Bird.”
(Peter Andrews / Netflic)
Film Critic

When a film advertises itself, as “High Flying Bird” does, as the joint product of “the director of ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and ‘Magic Mike’ and a writer of ‘Moonlight’,” it’s hard to know what to expect. Because that director is Steven Soderbergh, that uncertainty is amplified.

As much as any American filmmaker working today, Soderbergh likes to mix things up with as wide a variety of projects as he can get his busy hands on.

Avoiding boredom feels like an absolute for the man who’s won awards for films and TV as diverse as “Traffic” and “Behind The Candelabra.” And that drive to take on something unexpected helps “High Flying Bird” take off.

Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who shared the “Moonlight” screenwriting Oscar with Barry Jenkins, “High Flying Bird” is out of the ordinary, and not just because it’s opening simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix. It’s also that rare film (similar to Sean Baker’s “Tangerine”) that used special adapters so it could be shot with an iPhone but still maintain a fluid, widescreen look filled with arresting images.

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The director, as has been his habit, both shot and edited this film under pseudonyms. Apparently not one for idle chitchat, he candidly told The Times’ Mark Olsen that he takes on those additional roles because “it’s two conversations I don’t have to have.”

But what makes “High Flying Bird” so welcome and unexpected is its combination of immediacy and drama, its provocative creation of here and now energy and smart dialogue around the unlikely subject of professional sports in general and pro basketball in particular.

More than that, it manages to be the most trenchant of sports films, dealing with the potent disconnect between who plays the games and who owns the teams, all without showing a minute of actual sports footage or even mentioning the NBA.

And while it name-checks everyone from Golden State Warriors Steph Curry and Kevin Durant to the legendary Wilt Chamberlain, the film’s most prominent real-life personality turns out to be the acknowledged authority on sports, race and society, sociologist Harry Edwards.

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Even the film’s title is not what you might guess, having to do not with Larry Bird but with the Richie Havens version of that folk rock anthem, which plays over the opening credits and which the director has loved since he first heard it when he saw “Woodstock” when he was 14.

Arguably “High Flying Bird’s” key element is its savvy McCraney script, reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s work but with a tang all its own, bursting with iconoclastic ideas and fast-paced dialogue that dazzles like an elusive guard streaking down the court.

The idea for the film came from conversations between McCraney, Soderbergh and star André Holland around what the director (who’d worked with Holland on “The Knick”) calls “the commoditization of athletes, black athletes in particular.”

Playing Ray Burke, a no-nonsense basketball agent who is as constantly in motion as any of his clients, Holland both dominates and energizes “High Flying Bird” with an all-in performance that is a pleasure to experience.

It all starts with a lunch meeting Burke has with client Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), the top pick in the league draft but having money problems because a stand-off between the players union and the league has led to a lockout that’s lasted 25 weeks and counting.

That meeting not only showcases how sharp and articulate Burke is, it also reveals that he’s facing lockout-related problems of his own when the company credit card he uses to pay for lunch is declined.

Also concerned about the way things are going with the league are Spence (the veteran Bill Duke), a former player now involved with community outreach, Myra (Sonja Sohn, memorable in “The Wire”), the head of the players association, and Sam (Zazie Beetz, Emmy nominated for “Atlanta”), Burke’s former assistant who, like everyone else in the film, is working on multiple agendas.

Concerned about the lockout, about his own future, and about the way the league’s owners have “created a game on top of a game,” in effect marginalizing the players, Burke decides to do something about it.

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Though what he’s doing and why he does it is not clear until it happens, we travel with Burke as he expands his circle, meeting up with everyone from a super-rich owner (Kyle MacLachlan) to the in-control mother of another top player (a terrific Jeryl Prescott).

“High Flying Bird” feels so inside this high-powered world that there are moments, both verbal and plot-wise, that can be hard to follow.

But what is on this stimulating film’s mind is completely clear by the conclusion, and by the time we get there we’re more than pleased to have spent time in a universe that feels not only real but rarely, if ever, visited with such an astute vision.

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High Flying Bird

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s NoHo, North Hollywood, and Netflix

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran


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