‘Honor Society’ Review: Ivy League Strategist’s Cynical Shell Is Cracked

There’s a species of Young Adult novels — and their attendant film adaptations — that wears sophistication on its sleeve. Mostly for the purpose of demonstrating that sophistication won’t save the anguished teenage soul — see “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” In the teen rom-com, sophistication usually manifests itself in a near-endless stream of pop culture references.

“Honor Society,” directed by Oran Zegman from a script by David A. Goodman, comes out of the gate flashing a formal and thematic sophistication so dazzling it might take you a while to realize it’s actually a Young Adult movie. The relentlessly driven title character, Honor (Angourie Rice, whom you may remember from “The Nice Guys,” terrifically appealing throughout), snidely dismissive of her working-class parents, has crafted a persona ruthlessly focused on getting out of her one-horse town and into Harvard. A place where “mediocre people get outsized opportunities,” she tells the camera.

Notes of “Election” and “Rushmore” here are strong. Some fully grown-up viewers will feel old seeing Christopher Mintz-Plasse, of “McLovin” fame in “Superbad” (2007) playing the (ultimately sleazoid) guidance counselor who feeds Honor the unpleasant surprise that she’s actually one of four students vying for his Harvard recommendation.

This news motivates Honor to weave a manipulative web that grows spectacularly tangled. One of her foils, Michael, is played by Gaten Matarazzo, that winsome kid from “Stranger Things”; Michael responds with sweet-natured goofiness to Honor’s temptress moves. So of course he is the one to crack her cynical shell.

A twist whipsaws the movie into a darker place, one in the vicinity of Patricia Highsmith. But no murder takes place, and the movie’s resolution confirms what one may have suspected all along: Its dominant room tone is kinda-sorta that of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”

Honor Society
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. Watch on Paramount+.

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