NBA agency drama High Flying Bird is talky – fast-talky. It was written by a man trained as a playwright, and it details the back-end business side of a major corporatised sport. Even if you already know what a “lockout” is, you gotta keep up.

The comparisons to Moneyball – co-written, don’t forget, by Aaron Sorkin – are therefore abundant. And in fact, that was another film that, for non sports fans, alternated between engaging and dumbfounding. There’s nothing to make an arthouse buff feel stupid like two people speeding through sports terms and business-deal spiel; these films are as pleasurable to listen to as they are exhausting.

But the superficial is really where comparisons end. André Holland shines as a lead here, ably carrying all the head-spinning debates and deals while putting in solid, meaningful character work. He, and the rest of the cast, fully express the depths of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s writing – much of which here sounds Sorkinese but far more naturalistic – and finds more than enough subtext to keep the industry stuff engaging.

In High Flying Bird, basketball and the business around it function as a social microcosm, another way in which America’s corporate ruling class turns the fact of dark skin into its own separate strata. When McCraney deals with this head-on (taking cues from Harry Edwards’ The Revolt of the Black Athlete, referenced at the end), it’s electrifying; elsewhere, it stays in the background with a number of other interesting themes, all playing out with care.

This is Soderbergh’s third post-“retirement” release, his second shot on iPhone, and while his maverick stylings are still welcome, his treatment of script and cast is characteristically uneven. Not quite a slam-dunk, High Flying Bird is worth watching for its high points but often gets sluggish.



CAST: André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Sonja Sohn, Melvin Gregg, Bill Duke, Kyle MacLachlan

DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh

WRITER: Tarell Alvin McCraney

SYNOPSIS: A sports agent pitches a rookie basketball client on an intriguing and controversial business opportunity during a lockout.