Honor Society review a sharp, surprisingly dark high school comedy

The Paramount Plus film about a high school girl singularly obsessed with getting into Harvard is an enjoyably fanged journey through senior year

Honor Society, a dark comedy about prestige-obsessed high school students, opens with familiar faces of pop feminism: Beyoncé and Billie Eilish. They’re the faces Honor Rose (the Spider-man movies’ Angourie Rice) sees on her wall as she undergoes her lengthy morning routine before senior year – white strips for her teeth, jade roll on her face, straightener on her blonde bob. The montage recalls the opening scene of Booksmart, another sharp film about overachieving teenage girls. But whereas Booksmart’s ambitious protagonists sincerely worshipped RBG, Michelle Obama and Gloria Steinem with 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), Honor’s posters are proudly utilitarian, her attitude pure disdain. “They’re all bullshit,” she says to us, “but these are the gods of my people, so I must worship them.”

It’s a surprising, deliciously delusional opener that underscores this deceptively cutting, darker than you’d expect film on the prestige-obsessed, directed by Oran Zegman in her feature-length debut. A senior in a small town in what could be anywhere in the north-east, Honor has one goal for high school – to get out of it – and one idol only: Harvard, whose acceptance rate (4.6%) she knows off-hand. Honor looks the part of the all-around good girl beloved by admissions committees – she founded the karate club, edits the student newspaper, captains the volleyball team, runs a food bank for the less fortunate, all while keeping her grades up.

She also breaks the fourth wall, a la Fleabag, an overused trope of late which fortunately works here because we learn how everything, every blown kiss to her basic friends Emma (Avery Konrad) and Talia (Kelcey Mawema) or polite smile, is a chameleonic act in service to her singular obsession with Harvard. What could be a tiring focus on neuroticism becomes, in David A Goodman’s barb-laden script and Zegman’s slick direction, a refreshing portrait of a real, if overrepresented, American phenomenon – ruthless competition to get into elite universities – in comical isolation. It is enjoyable to have a female protagonist acknowledge that her sole motivation is to make other people envious, to see the ideal of being well-rounded made so villainous.

There’s an element of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman here, as Honor’s every move, like Carey Mulligan’s Cassie, derives from a demented, singular obsession (a satirical fixation with prestige as a cure-all, instead of #MeToo revenge). Both films cast Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a good-seeming, ultimately sinister guy – here, as Honor’s leery guidance counselor who picks one student per year to recommend to his best friend, a Harvard alum.

When Honor learns that she’s one of four students in the running for his recommendation, she furiously schemes to ruin her rivals’ grades with a ludicrously complicated plan, the details of which she relishes for us, her audience. Said plan, which is mostly fun to watch Rice unfold, involves joining the theater club, staging friendless weirdo Kennedy’s (Amy Keum) Tudor-themed play, casting sweet, closeted jock Travis (Armani Jackson), and seducing Michael Dipnicky (Stranger Things’ Gaten Matarazzo), a bullied nerd and her chemistry lab partner.

The taut, excellent first half of the film sees Honor judging everything around her with ice-cold scorn. Her English teacher, an early-70s Smith graduate who marched for the ERA, is a cautionary tale of pitiable hope. The school’s lacrosse coach, a formerly young and buff scholarship player at Syracuse, is now pitiably middle-aged and (gag) cares about his small-time job. Michael is an inexperienced boy “fantasizing about some porn star showing up and teaching him where to put it”. She should maybe feel bad about Kennedy’s ostracism, but “as I always say”, she notes, slamming her locker, “you can’t spell sympathetic without pathetic”.

The wobblier second half, in which Honor begins to feel for the unpretentious Michael despite herself and her numerous spinning plates falling in unexpected directions, struggles to balance the cut glass of the first with Honor’s burgeoning personhood. Rice, who held her own as Kate Winslet’s daughter in Mare of Easttown, resembles Amy Adams’s wide-eyed vulnerability shot through with the relentless, overachieving perkiness of Election-era Reese Witherspoon; she’s convincing in every scene.

But the final third of the film requires Honor to go from borderline sociopathic to seemingly sincere – a huge stretch for any character, even one as interestingly layered as Honor. A dark twist in the final act, though surprising, rocks the boat, and the Honor Society struggles to stick the landing and thread the needle between sour and sweet, campy and sincere.

The ending chorus of conclusions wraps up a bit too neatly, though that doesn’t invalidate the enjoyably deranged ride before. It’s perhaps foreseeable that Honor Society would ultimately conclude on the note that, hey, prestige isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, but the twisted, fanged journey to that truth is a welcome surprise.

  • Honor Society is available on Paramount Plus in the UK and US