The Derivative Honor Society Needs a Remedial Comedy Class

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The Derivative Honor Society Needs a Remedial Comedy Class

So many contemporary teen movies are full of Insta-ready bedroom set-ups: Photos strung up with tasteful Christmas lights, neatly arranged posters of carefully selected musicians, maybe an expensive chalkboard wall out of a VSCO Girl catalog. Honor Rose (Angourie Rice), punny heroine of Honor Society, has one of those bedrooms, but at least she admits that it’s mostly bullshit. In one of her many direct-to-camera addresses, she forsakes her posters of Billie Eilish and Beyoncé, admitting that the ”only real thing” in her room is her cherished copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. (This is not even cross-promotion; Honor Society premieres on Paramount+ rather than Hulu, home of the Handmaid series—though perhaps branded rivalries explain why multiple characters talk about the book without so much as a glancing mention of the popular TV show that brought it so much attention.)

If Honor’s bedroom was more honest, it would be wallpapered in movie posters for the stack of high school classics the movie knocks off. Honor is a relentless overachiever (like in Election) from a somewhat working-class background (like in Rushmore) who loads up on extracurricular activities (like in Rushmore again) because she has her heart set on escaping her shallow classmates and going to an elite school (like in Booksmart)—a goal that inspires her to manipulate those classmates (like in Clueless) as well as administrators, while wearing prim schoolgirl outfits (like in Pretty Persuasion—OK, they’re not all classics). The direct-address stuff, of course, is reminiscent of everything from Ferris Bueller to Easy A to Fleabag (OK, they’re not all high school movies).

Honor’s frequent fourth-wall breaks are often well-staged by director Oran Zegman—for a little while, it looks like they’ll happen predominantly in mirror shots, though that sadly isn’t sustainable. This doesn’t quite compensate for the lack of acid wit in the screenplay. Honor’s pitiless assessment of her peers, including the cheerful pair of supposed best friends she dismisses behind their backs, are overexplained first-level digs. A few observations stick, like her terror at how a good college can still send promising students back to their hometowns to live unremarkable lives, or a running gag about young people not using Facebook. But much of the movie’s zing comes not from the laugh lines, but Rice’s charming gleefulness in delivering them. She looks like she’s having fun.

Honor is certain that she has enough affection from a lecherous guidance counselor (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, overdoing it) to score a coveted inside track to Harvard; the counselor didn’t go there himself, but has a close friendship with an alumnus. Honor admits this is not exactly a slam-dunk, but is the best she can do in her nondescript, unnamed hometown. (In a paean to its unremarkable nature, her high school is named for George H.W. Bush.) When she learns the competition is a bit stiffer than she originally believed, she casts about for ways to shift the odds in her favor, focusing on distracting and therefore sabotaging three other students during their upcoming midterm.

The mild revelation of Honor Society is the way it imposes a neat con-artist structure to its mash-up of Clueless, Election and all the rest. To steer her fellow overachievers away from Harvard without them suspecting anything, Honor cozies up to them. This means joining drama club, where she encourages Kennedy (Amy Keum) to throw herself into the production of her original play; making study dates with nerdy Michael (Gaten Matarazzo), who she figures will buckle under the merest attention from a girl as attractive as herself; and nudging popular Travis (Armani Jackson) into accepting a part of himself he’s always kept secret.

If some of these machinations sound suspiciously like good deeds, that’s the fun: Watching Honor try to kill her competition with kindness, while confiding to the audience about her master plan. Honor Society never gets a handle on its comedic bona fides, but its faux-irreverent tone does allow for a satisfying con-style turn as Honor struggles to keep her new maybe-fake friends under her control. There’s even some authentic yearning to the movie’s bits and bobs of romance; what a relief that the nerdy guy isn’t a secret hunk, that the jock is more confused than clueless, that hook-ups and break-ups feel realistically scaled.

So why, then, is this not quite a new teen classic, or even a pastiche as delightful as Easy A? It’s not for lack of trying from Rice, who makes a winning heroine in what will hopefully be her last hurrah as an on-screen teenager. (Her poise has started to age her out of these parts, but that doesn’t mean she won’t play them for another five or 10 years.) 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. Honor may dismiss the trappings of her teenage bedroom as just for show; the movie can’t resist the idea that maybe there’s some truth in its bland set design.

Director: Oran Zegman
Writer: David A. Goodman
Starring: Angourie Rice, Gaten Matarazzo, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Amy Keum, Armani Jackson
Release Date: July 29, 2022 (Paramount+)

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.

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