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Honor Society: When Subverting Expectations Goes Right (Review)

Image courtesy of Paramount+

Honor (Angourie Rice, Spider-Man: Far From Home) has it all figured out: high school friendships are superficial, her parents’ relationship is loveless and merely bound together by her existence, and anyone still in her small town is stuck there because of their own shortcomings. Honor does not want to be another statistic, so from her first day of high school she has concocted a plan to get out of this town and into the college of her dreams: Harvard. Midway through her senior year, Mr. Calvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Superbad), informs her unexpectedly that his prized yearly Harvard recommendation has come down to her and three other students. Honor, who prioritizes herself first, second and third, concocts a plan to take out her competition and skate easily into the next chapter of her life. Sound familiar? It probably should. This plot has become so popular it could probably be its own sub-genre by now. But while most of these films tend to zig by playing it safe and sticking to the familiar beats of the coming of age/rom-com playbook, Honor Society zags, creating a surprisingly refreshing and enjoyable watching experience. 

For much of the film, Honor Society plays out as you would expect. Honor’s humanity slowly blossoms as she befriends and sabotages each of her three classmates who stand between her and Harvard, making it harder and harder to stick to her plan. Making it even more difficult is her growing affection for school nerd Michael (Gaten Matarazzo, Stranger Things). But while the basic plot may seem formulaic, it is filled to the brim with subtle novelties to the genre that make it stand out. For starters, Honor’s two closest friends Talia and Emma, are two girls who she describes as “the most popular girls in school” yet keeps around strategically for their knowledge and her status. Talia and Emma are far from your typical manipulative mean girls. While most of these films see the popular protagonist discovering the shallowness of her friendships, Honor’s arc is the opposite; she realizes these two are genuine friends who have always been there for her.

Probably the biggest stand-out of the film is the decision to have Honor narrate the film by consistently breaking the fourth wall and speaking to the audience. I’m sure this was a script decision, but I have to imagine writer David A. Goodman (The Orville) and director Oran Zegman, making her feature film debut, were ecstatic seeing Angourie Rice deliver the narration. Rice, who is an absolute revelation as Honor, delivers each piece of narration with the pep and confidence meant to match her character’s belief in her plan. She plays her character with such a level of commitment that you understand why the Marvel producers increased her role from Spider-Man: Homecoming to Spider-Man: Far From Home

Image courtesy of Paramount+

While the casting of Rice as Honor was the most important decision, it wasn’t the lone casting success. Matarazzo is fantastic as the shy Michael. You don’t realize until the climax of the movie just how good of a performance he put together and what a smart and strategic casting decision it was. But he serves as a good reminder not to judge a book by its cover. He also has surprisingly natural chemistry with Rice, and never feels out of place sharing the screen with her. Mintz-Plasse plays the creepy Mr. Calvin with frightening authenticity which, after his similar role in Promising Young Woman, begs the question: is he going to start being typecast in an entirely new way?

The relatability and laser-focus of the themes and Honor’s arc are what make it stand alone. Most of these films take the easy, vague route; Honor would learn to be a “good person” (whatever that means?), or maybe that in her pursuit of future goals she forgot to live in the present. But Honor Society keys in more specific themes that are earned through exposition and dialogue throughout the movie. It is one of those films where the thematic twists catch you off guard because you’re so caught up in enjoying the movie, but given a moment of deeper inspection you realize that each one makes sense.

This film is not without its misses. As I mentioned previously, Mintz-Plasse’s Mr. Calvin is basically a predator. He constantly flirts with students, invites Honor to a bar to watch him play music, and even tries to sleep with her. This character and his lack of ethics are essential to the film, but even so it feels out of place given the tone for much of the film. Similarly, the movie is very laissez-faire with the use of rohypnol to drug underage girls. This feels even more out of place because there is very little purpose for the introduction of this drug to the plot or tone of the movie. It almost feels like the writer & director are breaking the fourth wall and saying, “reminder, this is a scary thing that still happens sometimes!”. 

Image courtesy of Paramount+

In spite of its shortcomings, Honor Society is a rousing success. And while the film botches a few serious subjects, it handles others gracefully, specifically the coming out of jock Travis (Armani Jackson, Chad) to his equally sports-obsessed father. All of its positive qualities combine to help Honor Society eclipse the shackles its genre typically creates. In fact, the movie flips the script on the viewer and uses those handcuffs against them by defying expectations. This makes for a wonderful viewing experience, that is well written, acted, and shot. Most of all, it is an absolute blast the entire way through, and by the end you are grateful for the one hundred minutes you just spent watching a 17-year-old girl find her true self.

Honor Society is available on Paramount+.