A nervy tale of accidental do-gooding, director Oran Zegman’s “Honor Society” is a surprisingly compelling high school caper conceived with youthful wit, aplomb and a genuinely out-of-left-field twist. Written by veteran TV scribe David A. Goodman (“Family Guy,” “Futurama”), its teen protagonist seems a mash-up of Tracy Flick from “Election” and Cher Horowitz from “Clueless.” Possessing the former’s solipsism and the latter’s self-serving resourcefulness, Honor (a bewitching Angourie Rice) spends her days plotting her strategy to become a Harvard student in the next semester.
Honor has carefully forged this plan over the last four years. In her mind, Harvard is the only school that can guarantee her a one-way exit from a dead-end place. It’s not that her middle-class life sucks (it doesn’t) or her hardworking parents aren’t loving (they are); she’s just all too aware of the limited options her small town can provide, should she return home with a mediocre education.
This overachiever thus seems to have it all on her résumé: She’s a straight-A student with top grades, a philanthropist who volunteers at the local food bank, a self-starter and an athlete who’s founded a karate club. The only thing she’s missing? The much-coveted recommendation letter from her guidance counselor, Mr. Calvin, played by “Superbad’s” hilarious Christopher Mintz-Plasse, now a slimy authority figure geekily pacing the hallways of another high school.
Always several steps ahead of everyone, Honor already knows that Mr. Calvin is a creep who is inappropriately infatuated with her. Unfortunately, he also has the right Ivy League connections that could prove useful. Before she can even manipulate this combination to her advantage, however, Honor learns that three pupils are competing with her for his favor: shy brainiac Michael (Gaten Matarazzo of “Stranger Things”), reclusive aspiring playwright Kennedy (Amy Keum) and heartthrob athlete Travis (Armani Jackson), who’s famously dating the school’s prettiest girl.
Honor finds sabotaging the latter two easy. A master schemer, she talks the school’s drama club into staging Kennedy’s original historical play, an all-consuming extracurricular activity that will surely keep Kennedy away from schoolwork. Discovering that Travis is gay in the meantime, she casually convinces him to take part in said production, bringing him closer to the boy he’s long harbored a crush on, thereby interrupting his studies as well. But how to distract Michael? Can her feminine charms work on this quiet nerd?
Having made a confident impression in movies like “The Nice Guys,” “The Beguiled” and the latest “Spider-Man” entries, Rice once again gives a fine-tuned performance in a tricky role that asks a lot from her. Dressed in head-to-toe retro-preppy ensembles — like a sort of teenage Margaret Thatcher — and regularly breaking the fourth wall as a narrator with a Machiavellian grin and deviously wide-open blue eyes, Rice knows that likability is far from what Honor wants to achieve, despite what society expects of sweet girls her age. So she crafts her character with a performative facade, softening only when Honor develops genuine feelings for Michael — though not before she ruthlessly toys with her prey. (A hilarious and cleverly edited scene involving Honor’s suggestive act of pencil sharpening is especially brutal on the poor boy.)
An introverted, secretive geek, Michael also gradually grows into a more assured character, as Rice and Matarazzo precisely navigate the pair’s thorny nuances and mutual chemistry. Elsewhere, Kennedy and Travis grow stronger on their own terms, finally thriving as their authentic selves thanks to the unwitting good deeds Honor has done for them. Kennedy especially flourishes as a dramatist: Her play about Queen Bloody Mary emerges as an implausibly professional and expensive high school production, like a psychedelic costume drama directed by Baz Luhrmann.
From “Booksmart” to “Moxie,” from “Crush” to the recent “Anything’s Possible,” there has been no shortage of smart, lively entries to the high school film canon lately. Yet while those movies play it fairly safe, giving us idealistic worlds where characters are generally fashioned to do or say the right thing, “Honor Society” aspires to something a little more dangerous, rattling the audience a little with a risky, even sexy edge.
Not everything works. It’s hard not to wish its commentary on gender and class were further developed, and the eventual lesson learned by Honor something a little deeper than the importance of embracing one’s true self. We never do fully understand how Honor came to be the mean girl that she is: There’s only a surface-level investment here in her family life and seemingly close friendships with best pals Talia and Emma (Kelcey Mawema and Avery Konrad, both gorgeously costumed if superficially drawn). Still, this stylishly bouncy teenage romp mostly reaps the rewards of its fearless gambles, not least its willingness to treat teenagers as in-progress humans with a dark side.
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