“Like many immigrant children, I was raised to believe that the prestigiousness of a person’s career directly correlated with how good of a person they were, morally speaking. I was also raised to believe that no such prestigious career would be attainable without first paying for the privilege of a university education. Finally, I was told that my own race and appearance would have no effect on my future prospects in life, or on how people treated me here in Canada. At some point during my life, I realized these were all lies. This film is about my revelation at the bold hypocrisy that pervades throughout the esteemed institution of higher education, and indeed perhaps all western institutions held in high regard.”
— Director Li Dong, from the film’s press kit
Any aspiring writer and director who receives an anointing from acclaimed German director Werner Herzog goes to the top of the streaming list of the B&S About Movies’ review stacks. If you read our “Klaus Kinski vs. Werner Herzog Night” Drive-In Friday featurette, you know how we feel about Herzog in these wilds of Allegheny Country.
The creative tales of lawyer-cum-filmmaker Li Dong, who made his feature film debut as a screenwriter with the Canadian feature drama Samanthology (2019), began on the campus of Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University, where he graduated in 2006 with honours in English and history, and then went on to graduate from Dalhousie Law School. After law school, Li satiated his love of poker as a professional player prior to being selected by Oscar-nominated Werner Herzog for his “Rogue Film School” project. After directing episodes of the Canadian TV drama Model Minority, Li Dong’s now made his feature film debut, as both the writer and director, with this timely exploration of systematic racism — which he experienced growing up in Toronto.
However, despite the suggested heaviness of the material, Stealing School is, instead of a serious drama, an absurdist social satire. It’s a dark comedy that, instead of pointing fingers, offer solutions regarding sociopolitical issues, racial and gender inequalities, and the unilateral powers giving to school administrators of prestigious universities (and the nepotism of our employers in the real world).
Li Dong’s work also questions the value of liberal arts degrees in the real world (April thinks the class, which she’s accused of cheating, is beneath her) — a world now overwhelmed (and ever changing) by globalization and technology — and the resulting anxieties and fears inflicted on the futures of an institution’s students by the world’s archaic social views. As did Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s early ’60s explorations of regarding the alienation of the self in the modern world, Li Dong offers solutions to the development of our neuroses that result from our failure to adapt to our changing environs. While lacking the ubiquitous dead body (but filled with its share of Gogolian dead souls), Stealing School unfolds as a pseudo-film noir rife with analogously James M. Cain-twisted characters driven by ulterior motives and changing allegiances — whose own corruption and egotism becomes their moral and professional undoing.
We come to meet April (Celine Tsai; the Canadian TV series Rising Suns and the Hallmark Channel entry Christmas by Chance), an Asian-Canadian tech prodigy (sent to Toronto from China by her parents) accused of plagiarism by Keith, her humanities teaching assistant (Jonathan Keltz; got his start on Degrassi: The Next Generation and starred as Jake Steinberg on HBO’s Entourage), which jeopardizes her graduation from a prestigious Toronto university. Once friends, their relationship is, at best, acrimonious.
Meanwhile, a newly appointed faculty administrator wants to sweep it under the rug, lest the bad publicity derails her career. Another professor deciding April’s fate deals with clouded judgement as result of a personal grudge against April’s professor. And that professor, in turn, fears April’s fate will expose his infidelities with a student. And the student newspaper-journalism student? He’s looking for a resume-building “scoop” to start his career, so he works the racism angle to his advantage, even going as far as leaking information to off-campus publications.
Is April innocent . . . or did she actually cheat and frame others for her cheating scam. Or is she being railroaded — or not — for others’ personal gains. And what secrets about the racial and professional biases of her professors will come to light. What is the true meaning of accusing another of “guilt” and leaving them fighting for their “innocence” when it can expose an accuser’s own skeletons? For on this university campus, the halls of right and wrong are a murky maze of double-standard corridors . . . with the accuser and the accused ending their journey at a bus stop sharing a cigarette. Which is the martyr and which is the saint. Who is the sociopath let loose on the world to destroy more lives in their quest for professional admiration?
While Li Dong is obviously a writer and director of extinction, he’s still an indie director scratching and surviving in a streaming verse overflowing with other indie filmmakers in need of funding. And when you’re up against the budget: you write what you know around sets you know can secure. As result of his academic endeavors, Li Dong intelligently handles the poignant material in a budget efficient, subtle manner. In more a established director’s hands backed by a major studio, Stealing School, which also works as a courtroom drama (a university tribunal seated by three professors, with a teaching assistant as the prosecutor and student advisor (a law major) as the defense attorney), could have easily turned into a bloated production filled with matured Disney actors — when it doesn’t have to be bloated. Sometimes, simpler is beter, as “simple” can still convey complex subject matter (and it runs a tight 74-minutes).
In the film’s press materials, Li Dong stated that, despite the film’s potentially weighty subject matter, his first and foremost aim was to create a fun and entertaining film.
Stealing School rises proudly over the usual indie-streaming norms we experience at B&S About Movies. In fact, when considering the film is lead by a strong, female protagonist-cum-her own antagonist, the film would fit nicely into the female-driven programming blocks of the U.S.-based Lifetime Channel — but Stealing School also rises proudly over the quality of that channel’s “damsel-in-distress” telefilms. The cast of unknown actors are skilled in their roles, Li Dong’s non-linear (which turns off the many; but not me) script is followed with ease, and his camera work is engagingly well-shot.
I look forward to what the Werner Herzog-inspired Li Dong can accomplish with a larger budget on his future feature-film projects.
After its successful premiere at the Napa Valley Film Festival in 2019, Stealing School was released by Game Theory in June of 2020 on the iTunes platform in its native Canada. It becomes available across multiple streaming platforms in the U.S. courtesy Vertical Entertainment on February 26, 2021. You can follow the film on Instagram.
We previously reviewed the 2019 Vertical release, Portal.
Disclaimer: We received a screener for this film. That has no bearing on our review. Film still, theatrical one-sheet, and trailer courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.