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It only took a new Steven Soderbergh movie to finally get us to Slamdance

High Flying Bird
Photo: Netflix
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Every January, Park City plays host to a film festival for truly independent cinema. As you can probably guess, I’m not talking about Sundance, which tends to operate as much like another gear of the Hollywood machine as any kind of showcase for what’s happening on the fringe of American moviemaking. No, for the latter, you have to look to an adjacent and concurrent alternative: Slamdance, the city’s much less glamorous film festival, founded in 1995 as a haven for the micro-indies and under-the-radar work that doesn’t get into Sundance.

As I discovered a couple days ago, it’s not just the movies that are smaller at Slamdance, whose screenings take place at the Treasure Mountain Inn Hotel. After packing into a line that snakes down a narrow hallway, attendees are ushered into an auditorium with the ambience and layout of a college classroom. Red carpet bifurcates the room; on each side, several rows of grey office chairs have been lined up so tightly that you have to stand up on your seat to let someone by. People crouch in the narrow aisles and create a makeshift standing room in the back. The screen isn’t big, and the speakers and projectors aren’t state-of-the-art. It’s a far cry from even the least extravagant venue at Sundance—the famously maligned theater at the Park City Library, with its impossible sightlines and butt-punishing seats, seems luxurious by comparison. But all of that seems in keeping with the DIY spirit of this fest, which extends to its digs, its organization, its more casual and cozy atmosphere.

“It’s the perfect size,” Steven Soderbergh said of the theater during the long on-stage conversation that preceded the Slamdance premiere of his new movie. Is it wrong that it took an appearance by one of Hollywood’s biggest directors and Sundance’s most esteemed alums to get yours truly out to the little festival behind the big one? Soderbergh, to be fair, has shown work at Slamdance before; he brought his nutty avant-comedy Schizopolis there back in 1996, when his “career was at a crossroads,” as festival co-founder Peter Baxter euphemistically put it. (“You can say low,” Soderbergh dryly quipped.) Anyway, the unretired filmmaker is currently operating in a low-budget, on-the-fly mode that’s perfectly compatible with the ethos of this annual underground-cinema summit.

The pre-screening discussion alone turned out to be worth the detour. Soderbergh held court on multiple topics, citing The Beatles and Miles Davis as creative influences, dismissing the notion that he ever goes work-for-hire in exchange for passion projects (“They’re all for me”), and tentatively announcing a Christmas release date for Bill & Ted Face The Music, which he’s helping produce. The Q&A included questions submitted by filmmakers whose career Soderbergh has boosted, including one from Christopher Nolan, who asked, “When are you going to come back from the dark side and shoot on celluloid again?” Soderbergh’s perfectly cheeky retort: “When he starts writing scripts with a pencil again.”

This miniature masterclass ultimately proved as engaging as the feature presentation, but that’s more a compliment to Soderbergh’s gifts as a thoughtful conversationalist than a dig at High Flying Bird (Grade: B), which comes to Netflix in a week. The director’s ambling inside-basketball drama is his latest treatise on the commodification of bodies—a companion piece, of some sort, to his Magic Mike and The Girlfriend Experience. It’s also a kind of heist movie, another of his films to follow a slick, brilliant professional, gaming a system for financial gain. In this case, that describes Ray (André Holland, terrific), a veteran sports agent with his back against the wall. He’s recently signed a shit-hot rookie, Erick (Melvin Gregg), but a protracted NBA lockout has stopped the cash flow to his agency and scared some of their clients. With his livelihood on the line, and with his former assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz) in his corner, Ray hatches a scheme, playing multiple sides of the players-versus-owners conflict and chasing a possible bright new future for the game and its exploited stars.

High Flying Bird has the shaggy energy of a palette cleanser, but it’s too heady, too invested in big issues, to be called a minor work. As with his previous movie, Unsane, Soderbergh shot the film entirely on an iPhone, but it looks more vibrant, less cheap and flat, than that psychological thriller—maybe because the director is really getting a knack for the quirks of the technology or maybe because Unsane, in its B-movie aspirations, was designed to look cruddy. Either way, the fact that this a film about modern commercial tech, about seeing star athletes through the scrim of social media and viral video, further justifies the format.

We’ll probably never see the director’s proposed version of Moneyball, but one imagines it would share some qualities with High Flying Bird. There’s a staginess to the structure, a constant flow from one conversation to the next courtesy of screenwriter and Moonlight playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. This is a basketball movie solely interested in backroom wheeling and dealing; in the one moment when an actual game threatens to break out, Soderbergh comically cuts away. But the focus on intellectual showdowns dovetails nicely with the plot, which hinges on the possibility of wresting basketball from big corporate interests through one-on-one, pay-per-view showdowns. And there’s a lot of passion and ideas in McCraney’s dense shoptalk. By the end, Soderbergh has pulled off a kind of magic trick, bringing everything together in satisfying Ocean’s fashion while acknowledging that the underlying problem—the misdistribution of power and profit in pro basketball—remains unsolved.

This being a Soderbergh movie, there’s a little misdirection and surprise, the filmmaker using chronological hiccups to fill in the full scope of Ray’s hustle. Back at Sundance proper, I found myself thinking of his masterful manipulation of perspective during a very different movie: The Lodge (Grade: B+), an ambitious, expertly crafted, and admittedly kind of ludicrous horror movie from Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, the Austrian duo that made the very intense Goodnight Mommy. There are echoes of that earlier creepout in the new one’s plot, about the conflict between two kids (Jaeden Lieberher and Lia McHugh) and their soon-to-be-stepmother (Riley Keough), the lone survivor of a Heaven’s Gate-style doomsday cult. Still reeling from a recent tragedy, the family heads to a secluded holiday cabin for Christmas. When dad (Richard Armitage) has to trek back to the city for a work emergency, the kids get snowed in with their new, unwanted guardian, tensions slowly boiling into a cabin-fever nightmare.

Much more shouldn’t be said of The Lodge’s trajectory. It does require a certain suspension of belief, asking you to buy everything from the father’s monumentally clueless and even callous reading of the situation to the ultimate explanation of what’s really going on. But as an exercise in escalating dread and explicitly religious anxiety, it’s supremely effective. Though financed by legendary horror house Hammer (always a nice credit to see at the top of a new thriller), the film frequently recalls the atmospheric, strings-heavy A24 horror house-style. In fact, its foreboding establishing shots, deliberate pacing, and dollhouse imagery specifically bring to mind Hereditary. The Lodge isn’t as accomplished or harrowing as that Sundance triumph, but its values are comparable. Fiala and Franz know how to draw out the unease through environment, in this case creating a sleepless atmosphere though the low light flowing into their snowbound setting. Also, anyone with a taste for an implausible but well-executed rug-pull should keep their eyes peeled for The Lodge.