Director and co-writer Tamika Miller’s stunning indie feature “Honor Student,” which screened at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival on August 5, is one of the most arresting films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s an intriguing thriller/think piece that provocatively probes the many complex issues around gun violence and social justice. “Honor Student” took home a top honor at the festival, winning the Best Feature Film Award.
As the title suggests, the protagonist, Jeremy Chue (Hudson Yang), is indeed an honor student — a young Asian high school senior at a prestigious Washington, D.C., school, with perfect grades, going off to Harvard. Chue plays the cello, has an overbearing father, and is well-liked by his friends.
Chue’s co-star is Mrs. Hill, an African American teacher and soon-to-be divorced mother, who grew up poor and forged her way to being an excellent teacher and a trusted confidant to her students. It is this relationship that unites the two when Chue, whose brother had been killed in a mass shooting, decides, against character, to drastically take things into his own hands. He approaches Mrs. Hill with an unnervingly well-thought-out plan to carry out a mass shooting that he firmly believes will finally bring about change to the nation’s gun laws.
Chue’s goal is to convince Mrs. Hill of the soundness of his plan, and to be his spokesperson once everything is over. With masterful dialogue and action, the two spar as Mrs. Hill desperately tries to talk Chue out of this devastating act of violence.
With twists and turns, Miller keeps audiences on the edge of their seats throughout the film. While the clock ticks away before the bell rings for the next period, students pile out into the hall, becoming sitting ducks for Chue’s plan. While there is the constant threat of physical danger, audiences can follow Chue’s logic even as they fear the consequences.
Miller selected superb stars with Emmy-nominated actress Kelly Jenrette (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “All American: Homecoming”) and Hudson Yang (“Fresh Off the Boat”), who are flawless in their roles.
“I wanted to cast co-leads of color,” Miller said in a post-screening discussion with TV host April Woodward. “I wanted Jeremy to be this character who you don’t typically see when you hear about a mass shooting. You don’t expect this to be the person to do it.”
Miller wanted an affluent, successful student to circumvent any assumptions audiences might make if he had come from a disadvantaged background.
“It was important to me that Jeremy not be painted as this villain or sociopath. He’s a bit of an antihero,” Miller said.
That same intentionality permeates Miller’s film. There isn’t one wrong note. She and co-writer Joe Rechtman crafted a script that probes not just gun violence and legislation, but also how easy it is to obtain firearms, and the complexities of racism and mental health.
Every dialogue, camera angle, and song choice is full of subtlety, amplifying the scene and the audience’s response to it. Miller also integrates animation for flashbacks of scenes of violence, so that the message rather than the gore is what comes through. The symbolism of a caged bird and allusions to Maya Angelou also come up throughout the film.
“I’m a very intentional storyteller,” Miller said. “In terms of being a caged bird, I think all of us at some point have had this feeling — wanting, needing to break out.”
While audiences might think the movie is a response to the spate of recent mass shootings, the murder of George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter, Miller and Rechtman wrote the script in 2017.
“I purposely wanted to write about this subject because I knew that if it took me a year to make, two years to make, seven years to make, unfortunately, it would still be relevant,” Miller said. “[The plot] was born from my personal thought: What would it take to make comprehensive, actionable policy around gun control?”
Miller continued: “What I want to bring home is that the issue of gun violence is a multipronged one that needs a multipronged solution. It’s not just about gun legislation, but also mental health, which we have such a stigma around. And also giving individuals the tools to actually resolve conflict. Owning guns is ultimately about fear, and we haven’t learned how to really talk through things and resolve our issues. Talking about it is always so polarizing, because you’re either for gun control or against it. But it’s so much more complex — more layered than that.”
And in brilliantly probing those many layers, “Honor Student” succeeds in Miller’s wish to encourage meaningful conversation about efforts to curtail senseless gun violence.
For more information and a trailer, visit honorstudentmovie.com.