Beyonc and Billie Eilish appear in the opening of Honor Society, a dark comedy about high school students who are preoccupied with prestige. As she goes through her time-consuming morning routine before her senior year, Honor Rose (the Spider-Man movies Angourie Rice) notices the faces on the wall: white strips for her teeth, a jade roll on her face, and a straightener on her blonde bob. The montage makes me think of the opening scene from Booksmart, another witty movie about ambitious adolescent girls. However, Honors posters are proudly utilitarian, and her attitude is pure disdain, in contrast to Booksmart’s ambitious protagonists who sincerely worshipped RBG, Michelle Obama, and Gloria Steinem while harboring contempt for the less driven (Fuck those losers, Fuck them in their stupid fucking faces is the mantra Beanie Feldstein’s Molly listens to before school). She tells us that they are all bullsh*t, but since they are the deities of my people, I must worship them.
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This surprisingly cutting, harsher than you’d anticipate film on the prestige-obsessed, directed by Oran Zegman in her feature-length debut, has a startling, gloriously delusional. Honor, a senior in a little town that might be anyplace in the northeast, knows off-hand that Harvard, whose acceptance rate is 4.6 percent, is where she wants to go after high school. Honor maintains a 4.0 GPA while leading the karate club, editing the student newspaper, serving as volleyball team captain, and managing a food bank for the most fortunate. She also fits the stereotype of the all-around nice girl adored by admissions committees.
She also breaks the fourth wall, a la Fleabag, a tired cliche that thankfully works here since we see how everything, including her basic friends Talia (Kelcey Mawema) and Emma (Avery Konrad) blown kisses, are chameleonic acts performed in service of her single-minded fixation with Harvard. In David A. Goodman’s barb-filled writing and Zegman’s slick direction, what should have been a tedious focus on neuroticism becomes a refreshing picture of a true, if overrepresented, American phenomenon—ruthless battle to get into elite universities in hilarious isolation. It is entertaining to see the ideal of being well-rounded portrayed so wicked, to have a female protagonist admit that her only aim is to make other people envy.
As Honor’s every action, like Carey Mulligan’s Cassie, stems from a deranged, solitary preoccupation (a satirical infatuation with prestige as a cure-all, as opposed to #MeToo retaliation), there are echoes of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman in this situation. Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays an Honors Program guidance counselor who chooses one student per year to recommend to his closest buddy, a Harvard alumnus, in both movies as a good-appearing but ultimately evil character.
When Honor finds out that she is one of four students vying for his recommendation, she becomes enraged and plots a ridiculously intricate strategy to destroy her rivals’ scores, relishing in the minutiae for us, her audience. The plan, which is mostly entertaining to watch Rice carry out, entails joining a theater group, staging the Tudor-themed play of the friendless weirdo Kennedy (Amy Keum), casting the sweet, closeted jock Travis (Armani Jackson), and seducing Michael Dipnicky (Stranger Things’ Gaten Matarazzo), the bullied nerd and her lab partner.
Honor is seen scornfully assessing everything around her in the film’s brilliant, crisp first half. Her English teacher, a Smith alum who marched for the ERA in the early 1970s, is a sobering example of misguided optimism. Formerly a young, athletic Syracuse scholarship player, the school’s lacrosse coach is now pitiably middle-aged and (gag) only cares about his part-time work. Unskilled Michael fantasizes about a porn star appearing and showing him where to put it. Kennedy’s exclusion should perhaps make her feel guilty, but, as I always say, you can’t spell sympathetic without pitiful, she quips, slamming her locker.
The more unsteady second half attempts to balance the first’s cut glass with Honor’s developing individuality as she starts to feel sympathy for the unassuming Michael despite herself and her many spinning plates tumble out of control. Rice, who competed as Kate Winslet’s daughter in Mare of Easttown, has the same wide-eyed vulnerability of Amy Adams mixed with Reese Witherspoon’s dogged, overachieving perkiness from the Election era. She is convincing in every moment.
However, the last part of the movie demands Honor to transform from being practically psychopathic to appearing sincere, which is a significant push for any character, even one with Honor’s intriguingly complex personality. Honor Society fails to stick the landing and thread the needle between sour and sweet, campy and earnest because of a dark twist in the last act that, while unexpected, rocks the boat.
Although the final chorus of conclusions comes together a little too neatly, the previously entertainingly bonkers journey is still relevant. Honor Society’s eventual conclusion that prestige isn’t all that it’s made up to be is perhaps predictable, but the twisting, fanged path that led there is a nice surprise.
In the US and the UK, Honor Society is accessible on Paramount Plus.