There are so many modern teen movies with Instagram-worthy bedroom decor: Photos with tasteful Christmas lights strung up, artfully positioned music posters of musicians of choice, and perhaps an expensive chalkboard wall straight out of a VSCO Girl catalog. Honor Rose, the witty protagonist of Honor Society played by Angourie Rice, has one of those bedrooms, but at least she acknowledges that most of it are bullshit.
She abandons her Beyoncé and Billie Eilish posters in one of her many direct-to-camera interviews, confessing that The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is the “only real thing” she has in her room. Honor Society debuts on Paramount+ rather than Hulu, the platform for the Handmaid series, so this isn’t even cross-promotion.
If Honor’s bedroom was more truthful, movie posters for the stack of high school classics the film imitates would cover the walls. With her heart set on escaping her shallow classmates and attending an elite school (like in Booksmart), Honor is a relentless overachiever (like in Election), from a somewhat working-class background (like in Rushmore again), who loads up on extracurricular activities (like in Rushmore again).
This desire drives her to manipulate those classmates and administrators while donning prim schoolgirl outfits (like in Clueless—OK, they’re from Pretty Persuasion). Naturally, the direct-address stuff makes me think of Fleabag, Easy A, and Ferris Bueller (OK, so they’re not all high school movies).
Director Oran Zegman does a good job staging Honor’s frequent fourth-wall breaks; for a brief period, it appears that they will mostly take place in mirror shots, but sadly that is unsustainable. This falls short of making up for the screenplay’s dearth of biting humor. Honor’s callous evaluation of her peers, including the happy pair of pretending best friends she dismisses behind their backs, is a first-level insult that is overexplained.
A few of her observations endure, such as her horror at how a reputable university can still send talented students home to lead unremarkable lives or a recurring joke about young people not using Facebook. However, Rice’s endearing joy in delivering the jokes is what gives the movie a lot of its zing. She appears to be enjoying herself.
Honor is confident she has the support of a lecherous guidance counselor (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, overdoing it) to gain a sought-after inside track to Harvard; the counselor didn’t attend there himself but has a close friendship with an alumnus. The honor acknowledges that this isn’t exactly a walk in the park, but it’s the best she can do in her anonymous, unremarkable hometown. (Her high school is named after George H.W.
Bush as an elegy to its banality.) When she discovers that the competition is a little tougher than she first thought, she looks for strategies to improve her chances, concentrating on distracting and ultimately sabotaging three other students during their upcoming midterm.
The Honor Society’s subtle revelation is how it applies a neat con-artist structure to its mash-up of Clueless, Election, and everything else. Honor warms up to them to get her fellow overachievers out of Harvard without them noticing. Making study dates with nerdy Michael (Gaten Matarazzo), who she predicts will crumble under the merest attention from a girl as attractive as herself, and encouraging popular Travis (Armani Jackson) to accept a part of himself he’s always kept hidden are all part of this. She joins the drama club where she encourages Kennedy (Amy Keum) to throw herself into the production of her original play.
If some of these plots seem suspiciously like good deeds, that’s part of the fun: observing Honor try to eliminate her rivals with kindness while disclosing her grand scheme to the audience. Honor Society never quite grasps its comedic potential, but its pretentious irreverence does allow for a satisfying con-style turn as Honor struggles to maintain control over her brand-new, possibly fake friends.
What a relief that the jock is more confused than clueless, that the hook-ups and break-ups feel realistically scaled, and that there is even some genuine yearning in the movie’s romance bits and pieces.
So why isn’t this a new teen classic or even a delightful pastiche like Easy A? It’s not for lack of effort on Rice’s part; she makes a strong heroine in what will hopefully be her final film as a teen. There’s just something over-rehearsed and synthetic about this teen world where adults only pop in as needed for plot-point lessons or villainy (although her poise has started to age her out of these parts, that doesn’t mean she won’t play them for another five or ten years.)
The movie can’t help but entertain the notion that maybe there is some truth in its unimpressive set design, even though Honor may dismiss the furnishings of her teenage bedroom as merely for show.
Oran Zegman is the director.
David A. Goodman wrote this.
Featuring: Armani Jackson, Amy Keum, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Gaten Matarazzo, and Angourie Rice
July 29, 2022 (Paramount+) is the date of release.