High Flying Bird review – sports drama never takes flight

High Flying Bird has a smart and timely premise, but ultimately it fails to present that idea in an engaging or entertaining fashion.

While it focuses on a basketball, the film emphasizes the drama and less the sport in this sports drama. Ray Burke (Andre Holland, Moonlight) is a hotshot NBA sports agent managing the #1 draft pick Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg, UnREAL). Only problem is the NBA is in the midst of an extended lockout and neither the players union nor the owners are close to an agreement.

Ray is starting to feel the strain of the lockout, but not as bad as Erick who is anxious to prove himself and to start cashing in on his newfound status. With the situation looking increasingly dire, Ray falls into a plan that just might take care of everyone’s problems.

We’re in the Colin Kaepernick era of sports where a player can be blackballed for daring to go against the grain of acceptable social awareness. Screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) has a decent idea about taking some of the power out of the owners’ hands, but stumbles in the execution.

high flying bird movie review - melvin gregg and zazie beetz

There are some heavy handed analogies to players as modern day slaves, which Bill Duke’s rec league coach’s character finds annoying. It’s meant to be a funny running joke, but it comes across too forced. McCraney’s script is cluttered with too many characters thinking they’re the smartest people in the room.

The dialogue mainly hurts Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2), who plays Ray’s former assistant Sam. Sam’s agenda is unclear, but she seems to be operating and maneuvering to help out her old boss. Sam has a frustrating arc to follow as she’s everywhere without really doing anything. Beetz has too much natural charisma to get slighted with the least accessible character in the film.

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Pacing is also a problem as it takes nearly an hour for some real direction to take shape. Again, focusing on Ray was an odd choice. Besides showing him getting his company credit card declined and having to walk to meetings, it’s hard to get invested in his hardships. The most significant aspect of Ray’s life is years ago he used to manage his closeted cousin who ultimately committed suicide.

McCraney never dives deep enough into the characters to really care about what’s happening with or to them. It seems like Erick would be the more interesting subject as his he’s thisclose from realizing and his dreams only to be sitting on the sidelines for a situation out of his control.

high flying bird movie review - zachary quinto and andre holland

It’s nice to see Holland in a featured role. He’s a very talented actor and has more than enough presence to carry the film. Holland drags along the slight material to maintain the impression that something significant is about to happen in the next scene. Gregg is solid enough that I wish he had more screen time. Duke, Kyle MacLachlan, Sonja Sohn and Zachary Quinto provide strong supporting performances as various figures affected by the lockout.

Director Steven Soderbergh (Logan Lucky) is great about giving his films a visual personality. The most intriguing aspect of the film is that Soderbergh shot it on an iPhone. That gives the film a very unique look, but it’s a spectacle that doesn’t offer a ton of substance beyond offering inspiration for talented aspiring filmmakers lacking blockbuster financing.

Soderbergh randomly tosses in interviews with young NBA stars Karl-Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell and Reggie Jackson to discuss life in the league. These don’t serve much of a purpose as they lack much connectivity to what’s occurring in the film at any point in time. Maybe if the film’s focus was on Erick and his rookie year these interviews would make more sense, but they’re just presented here as random interludes.

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As a reminder that Soderbergh is a master of setting up the mood and establishing a captivating environment, the film succeeds. As a compelling entry in his catalogue, it’s an air ball.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Photo Credit: Netflix

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