Honor Society is a sharp, unexpectedly dark high school comedy.

 Honor Society is a sharp, unexpectedly dark high school comedy.

Honor Society is a sharp, unexpectedly dark high school comedy.

When Honor learns that she is one of four students competing for his recommendation, she becomes enraged and devises a ludicrously complicated plan to ruin her rivals' grades, the details of which she relishes for us, her audience. Joining 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, are all part of Rice's plan, which is mostly entertaining to watch unfold.


Honor judges everything around her with ice-cold scorn in the film's taut, excellent first half. Her English teacher, a Smith graduate from the early 1970s who marched for the ERA, is a cautionary tale of pitiful hope. The school's lacrosse coach, a former young and buff Syracuse scholarship player, is now pitifully middle-aged and (gag) concerned with his small-time job. Michael is a young boy who "imagines some pornstar showing up and teaching him where to put it." She should feel bad about Kennedy's exclusion, but "as I always say," she says as she slams her locker, "you can't spell sympathetic without pathetic."

Honor's every move, like Carey Mulligan's Cassie, stems from a demented, singular obsession (a satirical fixation with prestige as a cure-all, rather than #MeToo vengeance). In both films, Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays a good-looking but ultimately evil character - in this case, Honor's leery guidance counselor who chooses one student per year to recommend to his best friend, a Harvard alum.

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

It's a surprising, deliciously delusory start to this deceptively cutting, darker-than-expected film on the prestige-obsessed, directed by Oran Zegman in her feature-length debut. Honor, a senior in a small town in what could be anywhere in the northeast, has one goal for high school - to get out - and one idol only: Harvard, whose acceptance rate (4.6 percent) she knows off the top of her head. Honor appears to be the all-around good girl desired by admissions committees; she founded the karate club, edits the student newspaper, captains the volleyball team, and runs a food bank for the less fortunate all while maintaining her grades.

Honor Society, a dark comedy about egotistical high school students, begins with two pop feminism icons: Beyoncé and Billie Eilish. Honor Rose (Angourie Rice from the Spider-Man films) sees these faces on her wall as she goes through her lengthy morning routine before senior year - white strips for her teeth, a jade roll on her face, and a straightener on her blonde bob. The montage is reminiscent of the opening scene of Booksmart, a sharp film about overachieving adolescent girls. Honor's posters are proudly utilitarian, her attitude pure disdain, whereas Booksmart's ambitious protagonists sincerely worshiped 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). "They're all nonsense," she tells us, "but these are the gods of my people, so I have to worship them."

The final chorus of conclusions wraps up a little too neatly, but that doesn't invalidate the previously enjoyable deranged ride. Honor Society's eventual conclusion that, hey, prestige isn't all that it's cracked up to be is perhaps predictable, but the twisted, fanged journey to that truth is a welcome surprise.

The shakier second half, in which Honor develops feelings for the unpretentious Michael despite herself and her many spinning plates fall in unexpected directions, struggles to balance the cut glass of the first with Honor's burgeoning personhood. Rice, who played Kate Winslet's daughter in Mare of Easttown, has the wide-eyed vulnerability of Amy Adams mixed with the relentless, overachieving perkiness of Election-era Reese Witherspoon; she's convincing in every scene.


However, Honor must transition from borderline sociopathic to seemingly sincere in the final third of the film, which is a huge stretch for any character, let alone one as interestingly layered as Honor. Though unexpected, a dark twist in the final act rocks the boat, and Honor Society struggles to stick the landing and thread the needle between sour and sweet, campy and sincere.

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