Li Dong’s ‘Stealing School’ Interweaves Multiple Stories to Make a Twisty Dark Comedy

Secrets, lies and plagiarism…


“Stealing School” tells the story of an Asian-Canadian computer science under, April Chen (Celine Tsai), who is put on “trial” for plagiarism a week before graduation putting her degree at risk. The person leading the charge against her is not her international politics professor, but actually her teaching assistant Keith (Jonathan Keltz), who clearly has an axe to grind. Keith clearly feels as if he, personally, has been wronged by Ms. Chen and goes super hard in the quasi-trial that is essentially making up the rules as they go. Is it the fact that April seems to have the world at feet, as a “unicorn” (smart computer science major + “pretty”) she already has a big time Silicone Valley job lined up after graduation? Or is it just Keith, who is a white, male graduate student having a hard time lining up a job, confronting his own mediocrity and taking it out on the minority female student?

As the film unfolds in the make-shift “courtroom” and adjacent hallway and bathrooms, we start to see that everyone involved is interconnected behind the scenes. There are secrets, espionage, press leaks, blackmail, old grudges and secret plots all going on behind the closed doors. But as the proceedings begin to leak out into the outside world, the participants and the school at large have to confront the racial tensions, power dynamics and systemic biases inherently ingrained in the higher education system. The film also does an excellent job of highlighting the modern-day anxiety and frustrations of a generation currently facing uncertain futures. It speaks to the debate that has been had for decades about the validity and necessity of a liberal arts education, especially in today’s day and age.

The truth shall set you free…

In the end, “Stealing School” leaves you questioning innocence and motives — for things are not as they seem at the outset. Everyone is hiding something. But I loved the way this dark comedy set it up to touch on such timely and relevant issues, not just in higher education, but in society at large. You have to two minorities (April’s student advocate is a Black, male law student) up against the white establishment (everyone on the panel who decides April’s fate are white as well as her “accuser” and professor. The “trial” is essentially a farce and its outcome is predefined. There is the all too familiar white male and his fragile ego who feels as if he is owed something, there is the professor who has a somewhat problematic history with female students, there is the Asian student who is trying to “save face” and live up to familial expectations — all of these things make “Stealing School” super relatable and real. Everybody is cheating everybody.

Li Dong and his cinematographer (Jack Yan Chen) do a great job of visually bringing this story to life. And kudos to Li Dong for a solid feature directorial debut! While it could be boring and stagnant since it is such a small cast and basically takes place in one location, the team keeps the film interesting and viewers engage with through the witty dialogue (Dong also wrote the screenplay), excellent acting performances form everyone involved and the way that the scenes are shot. The “battle” or “dance” between April and Keith when they are questioning each other is perfect and raises the tension levels while keeping the film visually interesting. As a minority female (who didn’t get a liberal arts education) who went to a PWI, I totally could relate to April and her experience. The film was funny — even when it shouldn’t be. The storyline and characters got me emotionally invested in the film and I loved it. The interwoven stories made it complex and layered, but the best way possible. “Stealing School” just might be one of my favorites films of 2021 (even though it was technically premiered in 2019 and was released in Canada in 2020…we’re a little late)!

Stealing School will be available in the U.S. on VOD platforms starting February 26, 2021.