Honor Society is an odd movie, a frequently fun film that sometimes subverts audience expectations but works against itself with its own messaging. The Paramount+ original movie goes in some often unexpected and original directions despite beginning with every tried and true trope of movies about high school and teenagers, beginning as one type of (admittedly obnoxious) film before unfolding as a more mature one which attempts to transcend these tropes and occasionally succeeds.
The film follows the titular Honor, a senior in high school who is defined less by her personality than by her pursuits. She’s determined to get into Harvard and has been doing everything possible in order to follow her dreams and escape her bland hometown, but when she discovers that several other successful students are in competition with her for the college, she devises a scheme to sabotage them all and win the single spot of her creepy guidance counselor’s recommendation. What ensues is a bright and energetic movie with some ultimately important messaging, though one which can’t escape the very stereotypes it sets up to take down.
Angourie Rice Plays the Manipulative Honor in Honor Society
Angourie Rice is a very good young actor, perhaps best known as Betty Brant in the Spider-Man movies of the MCU, though was arguably at her greatest in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and especially as the spunky, sarcastic spawn of Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys. She goes all-in here as Honor, giving her all to an equally snarky teenager who dominates practically every scene of the film.
For better or worse, Honor is essentially introduced as a psychopath. Unlike sociopaths, psychopaths are extremely charming and can convince others that they’re compassionate and caring, all the while being manipulative and without conscience. This is why, as Jon Ronson has reported in The Psychopath Test, a disproportionate amount of big corporate CEOs are medically diagnosable as psychopaths.
Honor has everyone fooled, though it’s hard to see why — unlike Rice, Honor’s not a good actor, and is the kind of annoying person who thinks they’re a genius but is actually just precocious, extremely boring, and utterly typical. She talks to the camera, breaking the fourth wall to praise herself and put down everyone around her, pretending to be some Machiavellian master when, in actuality, she’s just mundane. In a sense, Honor Society is a film told through the villain’s perspective (though other characters are certainly villainous here as well), as Honor pulls some obvious strings to distract her Harvard competitors and get their grades to slip.
Of course, Honor Society is arguably setting up Honor in this way to detail just how psychotic the endless pursuit of success and advancement is, its ultimate trajectory revealing how empty and pathetic Honor’s life is when she only cares about her own success. As the film develops, Honor’s plans seem to wildly succeed, except she realizes that these academically focused students are actually better off and happier once they’re distracted by things they care about (friendships, creativity, lust). Meanwhile, Honor is left in the dust, sadly pulling the strings on marionettes who’ve come to life and bear more meaning than their manipulator. The film resists obvious conclusions though, and twists a few times before and after getting to this point.
Gaten Matarazzo and The Handmaid’s Tale in Honor Society
Part of the twist comes from Michael Dipnicky, played by the always delightful Gaten Matarazzo, famous as Dustin in Stranger Things. The wonderfully surnamed teen is Honor’s trickiest competitor to fool, a very intelligent and very bullied boy who Honor decides to flirt with and tempt in order to distract him from the midterms. Dipnicky gradually becomes one of the few characters in this film to have an actually solid personality beyond mere archetypal detritus, and a lot of that is thanks to Matarazzo.
Again, it’s not exactly an indictment of Honor Society to say that Honor lacks personality; her near-total repression of any individuality, desire, and identity is due to the blind pursuit of academic advancement and financial success, and if the film is a critique of this social element, then it would make sense for Honor to be rather devoid of personality. It also opens her up to growth in the final act.
One detail of Honor’s life that does hint toward an identity is her love for The Handmaid’s Tale, though a young woman liking Margaret Atwood is hardly multifaceted, original stuff. Much of that novel concerns itself with women being forced into the roles which society sets for them, and it could be argued that Honor Society (emphasis on society) concerns itself with something similar. The attachment Honor has toward Harvard and the assembly-line dreams society manufacturers for young people (collegial success or a family with a mortgage and two-point-five children, being a ‚boss‘ or a ‚queen,‘ having it all) is hardly any different from the pregnancy slavery of The Handmaid’s Tale; society just simply uses the illusion of freedom and the fantasy of personal choice to enforce its prison.
Honor Society Falls Into the Stereotypes it Attacks
The other characters in Honor Society are fairly one-note as well, and there’s little to explain that. Unfortunately, for a film which may want to take on society and smash the patriarchy the same way that The Handmaid’s Tale did, its female characters are depressingly barren. Honor’s two best ‚friends‘ (who she admittedly uses and has little to no compassion or respect for), Talia and Emma (played by Kelcey Mawema and Avery Konrad), are the worst example of this. The fine actors have to play characters who are written as stupidly as possible, to the extent that they don’t even seem like human beings, just pretty robot sheep.
The insufferable emptiness or obnoxiousness of Honor and some other characters is important, though, for depicting the change throughout the movie and for creating emotional and thematic arcs. Plus, director Oran Zegman ensures that everything moves along quickly and energetically, filming Honor Society in a way that keeps every part progressing with visual swiftness. The fourth wall breaks are a bit overused and trite by now, but they’re wonderfully filmed here, with Zegman using interesting angles and pans to draw our attention to Honor. They’re also useful in highlighting just how smart Honor thinks she is while chronicling her slow realization that she’s actually miserable and hollow.
The film’s brightness and visual playfulness is a nice contrast to some of its inherent darkness. Honor Society is a film that deals with the emptiness of success and the selfishness of ambition, which makes it like a 2022 version of Election, that deliciously wicked satire with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick from 1999. Unlike Election, though, Honor realizes her own psychosis and the fact that nothing, not Harvard or Instagram or boys, can make her whole. It’s a painful process to go through, but one that ultimately saves her and allows her to build an identity that isn’t imposed on her from society. As such, Honor Society is probably a pretty important movie for teens, even if it’s sometimes as hollow and annoying as the things it critiques.
An Awesomeness Films and Guardian Pictures production, and produced by Don Dunn, Ron French, Fred D. Lee, Michael Lewen, and Syrinthia Studer, Honor Society is available to stream on Paramount+.