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‘Honor Society’ gets an A

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As a person of a certain age, my memories of my high school days have grown a bit blurry. One thing I do remember, however, is that while I and my peers faced our share of pressures, growing up today is an altogether different experience. The competitive nature of high school achievement is more intense now than ever, with kids motivated to increase their odds of admission to elite colleges in any way they can.

But just how far might they be willing to go?

That’s the central premise of “Honor Society,” a new film currently streaming on Paramount+. Directed by Oran Zegman from a script by David Goodman, it’s the story of a young woman on the cusp of graduation who wants nothing more than to go to Harvard. All she needs is one recommendation … but she’s got classmates who are angling for that same rec. To ensure her own success, she’s going to have to find ways to sabotage some of her peers.

But as her plans start to play out, she discovers that there is far more to these people than she ever might have guessed and that her scheming might well have some unintended effects.

Honor (Angourie Rice) is a rising senior in high school. She has dedicated her life to academic achievement. She engages in loads of extracurricular activities and has popular friends and single-mindedly polishes her GPA. She has loving parents (Michael P. Northey and Kerry Butler), but all she really wants is to get into Harvard so she can leave her hometown behind.

The key to all of it is the guidance counselor Mr. Calvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who happens to have a close personal relationship with a very powerful Harvard alum. Basically, a letter from Mr. Calvin all but guarantees admission. As you can imagine, Honor wants that letter very much.

But she’s going to have to fight for it.

There aren’t many on her level, but there are a few that are serious competition. There’s Travis Biggins (Armani Jackson), captain of the lacrosse team. There’s Kennedy Smith (Amy Keum), a brilliant history-loving weirdo. And there’s Michael Dipnicky (Gaten Matarazzo), a nerdy loner whose GPA shines even more brightly than Honor’s.

To ensure her own success, she must undermine the competition – by whatever means necessary.

As her plans play out, it all appears to be working. However, these schemes require proximity, and as she grows closer to the people she’s trying to take down, she finds herself becoming more engaged with them and their worlds. As it turns out, they’re all complicated, nuanced human beings, with ideas and interests and attitudes that are far beyond anything that could be written on a transcript. With each passing day, as her Machiavellian plotting plays out, she learns that there is more to happiness than high achievement – and that she might not be quite as smart as she believes herself to be.

“Honor Society” surprised me. It’s a smarter movie than I anticipated going in, a lighter and less unseemly version of “Election.” It never gets as dark as that film does, which is a good thing – there’s a levity throughout that helps keep us from veering too deeply into the shadows. Instead, we get a few twists and turns that feint at something a bit more cutting, but largely stays in the light.

Fourth-wall-breaking is kind of the stylistic choice of the moment, so I tend to be a bit cautious when I see it pop up as a primary storytelling device. That said, it absolutely works here – much of what we see is directly delivered by Honor herself, allowing us to stay within her perspective and witness the incremental changes that she undergoes as her plans bear fruit. It also allows us to gain a much clearer sense of what Honor herself tells us at the onset – that her life is built around the persona she has created, all in service to the overarching end goal of Harvard. That insight makes her a far more sympathetic character than she otherwise might have been – we get the motivations behind her manipulations.

“Honor Society” is also a very funny movie, one that embraces the heightened nature of cinematic high schools and really runs with it. There are multiple moments that, while not directly borrowing from other high school comedies, are evocative of those tropes. There’s an over-the-top payoff at the end of the film that is a perfect example (though I won’t spoil it). Not to mention the fact that McLovin himself plays a guidance counselor; it’s a delightfully meta touch.

We get some really killer performances here. Rice is excellent as Honor, carrying the bulk of the narrative weight on her shoulders. She manages to make her many expository direct address moments feel vital and engaging, all while also balancing the subtle shifts between who she is when she talks to us and who she is when she talks to everyone else. It’s a deceptively hard role and she fills it wonderfully. Matarazzo’s aw-shucks goofball charm is in full effect here; he exudes a cuddly nerdiness that makes him perfectly sympathetic here. Jackson’s role might be the most traditional – we’ve seen a lot of this before – but he makes it work – and Keum is an absolute hoot, deadpanning her way through every scene. Oh, and Mintz-Plasse does precisely what he needs to do here, capturing the ridiculous backward-chair efforts at coolness that we’ve all seen before.

I had “Honor Society” pegged as a disposable high school comedy, but it’s definitely a couple of notches better than that. Thanks to some great performances and a less-predictable-than-you-think script, it offers up a portrait of high school existence that, while certainly skewed, has more than a bit of truthiness to it. Clever and heartfelt, it took this one-time high achiever back; mine might have been a simpler time, but this film still spoke to it.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 01 August 2022 10:06

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