Review: ‘Stealing School,’ starring Celine Tsai and Jonathan Keltz

April 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Celine Tsai and Jonathan Keltz in “Stealing School” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Stealing School”  

Directed by Li Dong

Some language in Chinese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian city, the comedy/drama “Stealing School” features a racially diverse cast (white, Asian and black) representing people connected in some way to the well-known (but fictional) Dupont University.

Culture Clash: At the university, a white teaching assistant/Ph.D. student faces off with an Asian undergraduate accused of plagiarism in a tribunal hearing, which will determine if the student will be allowed to graduate or not.

Culture Audience: “Stealing School” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dark satires of how social justice issues have an effect on how universities want to be perceived.

A scene from “Stealing School.” Pictured from left to right, facing the camera: Celine Tsai, Mpho Koaho, Kayleigh Shikanai, Jonathan Keltz and Matthew Edison. Pictured from left to right, with backs toward the camera: Jonathan Malen, Michelle Monteith and Darrin Baker. (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The astutely written “Stealing School” takes an incisive look what can happen when race, class, gender and political correctness collide in a Canadian university that wants to project an image of being progressive and inclusive. The true nature of the movie, just like some of the characters in the story, won’t always match a first impression. “Stealing School” appears to be a straightforward drama, but it’s really a dark satire about the lengths that people will go to to keep up appearances. The story (which takes place at the fictional Dupont University in an unnamed Canadian city) unfolds in layers. Viewers will be kept in riveted suspense to see if the whole truth will eventually be revealed in an investigation over a student accused of committing plagiarism.

Written and directed by Li Dong, “Stealing School” centers on an academic tribunal to determine if Dupont undergraduate student April Chen (played by Celine Tsai) will be able to pass her political science class. April is a computer science major who is a week away from graduating from Dupont. The reason for the tribunal is because April has been accused of plagiarism in an important political science assignment. The political science class is one of the liberal-arts classes that April is required to take in order to graduate. If the three-person judging panel at the tribunal decides that April is guilty of plagiarism, she’ll fail the class and won’t be able to graduate.

The class’ ambitious teaching assistant Keith Ward (played by Jonathan Keltz), who is a Ph.D. candidate in the university’s political science department, brought the suspected plagiarism to the attention of the university and filed the formal complaint against April. Keith is also the one who has appointed himself the lead person to present the case against April. He’s taking this responsibility as seriously as a prosecutor in a criminal trial. Meanwhile, April has vehemently declared that she is not guilty and she’s going to vigorously defend herself.

Sitting next to Keith during the tribunal is his reluctant supervisor Professor Alan Thornton (played by Matthew Edison), who doesn’t really want to be there. Professor Thornton is annoyed with Keith because Keith went behind Professor Thornton’s back to file the complaint against April. Professor Thornton went along and signed off on the complaint because he didn’t want to look ignorant about what was going on with April’s assignment, which Professor Thornton had tasked Keith to look over and grade.

At the tribunal, April has someone on her side who definitely wants to be there. Sitting next to her at is undergraduate student Micah Shaw (played by Mpho Koaho), who is a volunteer in the student advocacy department. Micah has aspirations to go to law school. And based on what he says in the movie’s conversations, he’s more inclined to become a defense attorney than to work for plaintiffs. Just like Keith, Micah has the type of personality where he wants to be the one to stand up in front of a room and take the lead in presenting a case.

The three people on the judging panel who will decide April’s fate are Josh Bertier (played by Jonathan Malen), an undergraduate student in the computer science department; recently hired Dupont University bureaucrat Deborah Lewis (played by Michelle Monteith), whose title is academic integrity officer; and Professor Richard Gould (played by Darrin Baker) from the political science department. Because the tribunal is being held so close to the end of the academic school year, the three panelists are a little restless and want to get these proceedings over with as soon as possible. It also doesn’t help that the air conditioner in the room doesn’t seem to be working on this sweltering day.

Bit by bit, several things are revealed about all of the people in this tension-filled room. Many of the people have personal agendas that affect the way that they act and what they say in public and private. For example (and this isn’t spoiler information), Professor Gould and Professor Thornton have known each other since they attended the same grad school together. But they have a distant relationship because Professor Gould suspects that Professor Thornton wrote an insulting letter to university officials about Professor Gould to urge the university not to give tenure to Professor Gould. Whoever wrote the letter failed in the attempt to smear Professor Gould, because he ended up getting tenure.

During a break in the tribunal proceedings, Professor Gould (who is normally mild-mannered) angrily confronts Professor Thornton in the hallway about that letter. All of his pent-up anger comes out, but Professor Thornton denies that he wrote the letter. Is Professor Gould being paranoid? Or is he correct in assuming that Professor Thornton wrote the letter? And how will this grudge affect Professor Gould’s decision in April’s case?

Meanwhile, during certain breaks in the proceedings, April (who comes from a Chinese immigrant family) talks to her mother (voiced by Celest Chong) on the phone because her mother keeps calling in excitement over April’s graduation. It’s revealed that 12 people in April’s family will be traveling to the university for her graduation. April has a very promising future. She’s a computer science whiz who created a publishing platform that was bought by a company called Snakeskin. And she already has a job lined up at an unnamed Silicon Valley company.

A series of flashbacks tell more of the story. These flashbacks go as far back as two years before the tribunal and as recently as three days before the tribunal. Private conversations with some of the characters reveal some of their conscious and unconscious biases. For example, Josh (the computer science student on the tribunal judging panel) tells someone that there’s no shortage of Asian people in the computer science department, with his tone of voice suggesting that by “no shortage,” he really means “too many.” Josh also tells the same person that April is a “unicorn” because not she’s a good-looking woman who works in computer science.

In another flashback, academic integrity officer Deborah is seen in her first day on the job having a nervous and awkward conversation with her immediate supervisor Irene McDonnell (played by Adrienne Wilson), who is the assistant vice president of academic operations. Irene invites Deborah to an upcoming dinner that will be attended by potential donors. It’s implied but not said out loud that these potential donors are from non-Western countries.

Irene tells Deborah that American universities aren’t as welcoming of non-Westerners are Canadian universities are. “We’re better than that,” Irene says haughtily of what she thinks is American universities’ bigotry. Irene also tells Debora that it’s important that the potential donors get the impression that Dupont is welcoming to people from non-Western countries.

Several witnesses are called during the tribunal, which takes place in one day. The witnesses include April’s roommate Kelly Nakashima (played by Kayleigh Shikanai); computer science professor Tim Mistry (played by Sugith Varughese); April’s writing coach Mark Lin (played by Andy Yu); and professional essay writer Elisha Sinclair (played by Clare McConnell), who freely admits that students pay her to write their school assignments. They all provide some level of comic relief when they say things that the judging panel doesn’t expect.

“Stealing School” has some sly commentary on the perceived value of a college degree. When university official Deborah asks essay writer-for-hire Elisha at the end of Elisha’s testimony: “Why do you help students cheat? Is it because you need the money?” Elisha has this snappy response: “No, we’re both shilling overpriced pieces of paper to kids too. Yours just happens to say ‘diploma’ at the top.”

One of the flashbacks reveals that a Dupont student named Russ Kasdan (played by Vas Saranga), a journalist for the university’s student newspaper, has heard about this confidential tribunal. Russ has been snooping around to try to get information about the tribunal for a potentially damaging exposé article that he plans to write for the newspaper. Someone in that tribunal ends up leaking valuable information to Russ, and this leak might or might not affect the outcome of the panel’s decision. In addition, there’s a room in the building with a ventilator where conversations can be heard from the nearby restrooms, unbeknownst to the people in the restrooms. And yes, there are are some interesting eavesdropping scenes in this movie.

“Stealing School” has some subtle and not-so-subtle depictions of power dynamics that have to do with race and gender. When Micah advises April to not testify on her own behalf and that he will speak for her, April angrily responds: “Can you please stop coddling me? I’m not a victim. I’m simply innocent.” It’s left open to interpretation if Micah would be that patronizing if April were a man.

Likewise, Adam is aggressive in his “prosecution” of April. He openly expresses hostility toward April and appears to resent that she has a cushy job lined up while he’s a low-paid grad student whose employment future is less certain. There are times when Adam acts like he thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. It’s left open to interpretation if Adam feels emboldened in acting like an “angry white man” because he knows it’s more socially accepted than if a woman or person of color acted in the same combative and arrogant way that he does.

Although all the characters in the movie play some role in the outcome of the tribunal, the biggest power struggle is between April and Adam. Their showdown is fascinating to watch because it’s clear that this battle is more than about who wins or who loses. It’s also about how they each feel that the outcome is a reflection of how the university treats students like them. Therefore, their racial and gender identities can’t help but be part of the equation in how April and Adam feel that they will be judged.

Because the showdown between these two students is essentially the heart of the story’s conflict, much of “Stealing School” relies on Tsai’s and Keltz’s performances to keep viewers interested. Keltz’s acting at times can be a little too over-the-top, but not excessive enough to ruin the movie. Tsai has the more interesting role and performance, which she handles capably, because April goes through a wider range of emotions than Adam does.

The supporting actors all have performances that range from good to mediocre. The movie’s original screenplay and wise editing choices elevate this movie, whose flashbacks could have made it a messy film if handled incorrectly. “Stealing School” writer/director Dong and cinematographer Jack Yan Chen also bring the right balance between a “bird’s eye”/observant view in some of the scenes that are in public and the “voyeur”/intimate view for the scenes that are in private. Overall, “Stealing School” is an impressive feature-film debut from Dong.

Up to a certain point in the movie, viewers will be kept guessing if April is guilty of what’s she’s been accused of doing. Although she’s the one being judged, “Stealing School” is really a clever and somewhat snarky indictment of academic institutions and how “political correctness” can be used as a weapon to cut both ways. And the movie sends a message that first impressions aren’t always the correct impressions.

Vertical Entertainment released “Stealing School” on U.S. digital and VOD platforms on February 26, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom in 2020.