Roubado Review: A Masterclass Short Film

Many short films fail to make a compelling story with fleshed-out characters in the short amount of time they work with. Shorts often fail to develop the visions of their directors or writers by being either too expository or providing too little exposition for viewers. What is often seen amongst such shorts are an excessive use of style as a way of compensating for their lack of storytelling ability. Great short films, however, and by that great filmmakers, show keen attention towards the story before considering style. This tier of shorts manages to establish a conflict, address as well as develop the script’s key characters, and resolving said conflict in under a half-hour runtime - sometimes even less than 15 or 10 minutes. The difficulty of creating a story that is expected to achieve the same tasks as a feature-length film in a tenth of the time is what makes short filmmaking so difficult, even for professionals of the craft. Yet somehow Erica A. Watson, a Graduate Film student at UCLA during the time of her project’s making, was able to write/direct Roubado, a film which lies within a masterclass of short films. 

What’s incredible about Roubado, which roughly translates to “stolen” in Portuguese, is how well Watson can build her world with such a skeletal screenplay. This is largely credited to her script, which utilizes every line of dialogue to build character or further expand upon the plot, and the all-star performances from her cast. Darren Lake, who plays Roubado’s quiet protagonist Alain Costelo, an Afro-Portuguese teen living in Cannes France, stands out in particular. Alain is awkwardly positioned in the relationship between his mother, Augustine (Mickaëlle X. Bizet), and her fiancé, Gaspard (Jean-Pierre Vertus). While Augustine sees Gaspard as a perfect love, Alain views him as a disgusting replacement for his father. He’s deemening, self-oriented and an abusive figure towards Alain behind Augustine’s back. 

Lake portrays Alain’s emotional pain, fear, anger and social reservation with a level of physicality that transcends the screen. Vertus is an equal force in Roubado as he captures Gaspard’s coldness through a simple stare, a smile or the way he devours his pizza. While they do not possess the same screen time as their male counterparts, Bizet and Tiffany Tanelle, who plays Alain’s love interest, possess a powerful presence on screen as well. 

Even if the performances of these actors weren’t as stellar as they are, Roubado would still shine the same simply through its visual style. Watson and cinematographer Tommy Maddox-Upshaw do not simply use the camera to capture their actors but as a storytelling device. Together they create a warm, soft, grainy look to the film which is both beautiful and mirrors the photographic texture of the Minalta camera Alain confides in. 

The grain gives Roubado a timeless feel. Its style is fitting as it’s an exploration of the consequences of marital separation on kids is temporal.  The film looks like a peer into a distant dream or a painful childhood memory. Watson’s navigates the space without a clear resolution to Alain’s living situation. He seemingly will continue living in his abusive household despite finding romantic solace with someone else. It’s lack of “answers” doesn’t take away from the film at all. In fact, it’s why it should be held so highly. Because it’s images, the questions its poses, and the futures of the characters last with viewers. Roubado truly is a masterclass film made by filmmakers who will certainly make their mark on the cinematic landscape one day. We have this beautiful short film to hold on to and revisit until then. 

Roubado was screened in over 50 film festivals worldwide and found a place on Issae Rae’s #ShortFilmSunday series on Youtube. It’s available to stream both on Youtube and on Watson’s Vimeo.