by Cat McAlpine
Senior April Chen (Celine Tsai) is days away from graduating from DuPont University, and she already has a lucrative job waiting for her in Silicon Valley. All she has to do is get through her academic misconduct hearing. But her TA, Keith Ward (Jonathan Keltz), is determined to pin her for plagiarism and as the hearing wears on tensions rise and secrets are unearthed.
In a mockery of a courtroom, Stealing School analyzes the personalities and egos that run rampant in academia, criticizing its self-importance, bureaucracy and institutional racism. A particularly good running gag is various character’s introduction of their thesis titles. If you’ve ever had a brush with higher education, you’ll recognize all the archetypes that writer and director Li Dong cross-examines.
Particularly brutal is the Canadian school’s PR policy which seems to rely entirely on “being better than American schools.” Their only answer to accusations of racism and misconduct is that at least they aren’t like the institutions to their south.
Stealing School has good pacing, and a delicious unfurling of tensions between various characters during breaks and in flashbacks. The film analyzes how important it is to be likable, rather than right or good. Keltz is absolutely loathsome and delivers the best performance of the film, being too eager, too righteous, too vindictive. Tsai matches him with a subtler performance, walking a moral gray area that has you unsure of her innocence until the final moments of the film.
The rest of the supporting cast matches their archetype well, all either jaded by the academic world or still obsessed with its ability to give them better opportunities. But Stealing School’s criticisms don’t stop at academia. Dong also explores racism in broad strokes and the toxic culture of tech that only asks that you provide good code.
Stealing School is a tight hour and 14 minutes, which keeps its mostly single setting from feeling claustrophobic. With good pacing and a satisfying end, this is a great watch for your evening, especially if you regret your degree.