Director Oran Zegman and screenwriter David A. Goodman team up for “Honor Society”, a high school coming-of-age comedy wedged right between freshly original and disappointingly conventional. It’s a movie with plenty of its own ideas and a charismatic star who helps the film consistently subvert our expectations. But there are also times where it resorts to the more familiar teen movie formula. That’s when you can see the filmmakers checking boxes and leaning on tropes rather than using them in interesting ways.
While “Honor Society” may not be the most balanced movie, it does have its own distinct personality and allure which keeps you locked in. It all starts with the film’s lead character, Honor Rose, played by a delightfully snarky and devilishly charming Angourie Rice. Honor is an ambitious and determined overachiever in the final days of her senior year of high school. Since her freshman year, Honor has stuck to her own strict and obsessive four-year academic plan with only one goal in mind – acceptance into Harvard. There are no contingency plans, no second choices, no rethinking it if something goes wrong. It’s Harvard or bust, and she’ll trample anyone in her path to get there.
The framing of the story is interesting. Basically, Honor is walking us through her story, constantly breaking the fourth wall to let us know how she really feels about what we’re seeing. It’s revealing as we learn she’s not only brutally honest, but also conceited, condescending, and astonishingly self-serving. She’s ready to ditch her small town and leave middle-class life in the dust. And she lets us know she has just the kind of ego to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Rice conveys all of these qualities with jarring clarity, and she gives us a character we are appalled by but also strangely admire. I mean her point-of-view on certain things may be a bit harsh, but they can also resonate.
Essential to Honor’s plan is her perverted guidance counselor, Mr. Calvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who happens to have Harvard connections. Honor needs him to write her a letter of recommendation and has tried to use his utterly inappropriate feelings towards her to her advantage. But instead of writing her the letter, he informs her that she’s among his top four choices. Only one will get his Harvard recommendation. Of course that is unacceptable for Honor who immediately starts putting together her next course of action.
Honor narrows down her competition to Travis Biggins (Armani Jackson), the hunky captain of the lacrosse team; Kennedy Park (Amy Keum), an eccentric and ignored introvert who wears historical costumes to school; and Michael Dipnicky (Gaten Matarazzo), a brilliant but bullied outcast. Honor hatches several plans to preoccupy the three so that they bomb their mid-terms. But in her efforts to manipulate everyone for her benefit, she unknowingly ends up changing some of their lives for the better.
As the plot unfurls more characters are introduced which is where the movie begins to veer towards the conventional. Collectively most feel like typical teen movie types and neither them nor their story angles move beyond that. Some characters fare better than others. But most hit all too familiar beats with very predictable trajectories. And it’s not without its corn and cringe. Take the all too tidy finale that comes right after a smart and surprisingly wicked twist. The sappy and groan-worthy final few moments land with a thud.
But the most stable force from start to finish is Angourie Rice. This should be an attention-getting performance and a star-making turn for the 21-year-old Australian. Regardless of where the story goes she keeps us anchored, brilliantly juggling acting directly into the camera and with other actors. And despite a few tired conventions, there’s still some good material here that let’s Rice take her character to some unanticipated places. That’s when “Honor Society” is at its best. “Honor Society” is now streaming on Paramount+.