‘Malu’ Review — ‘Lady Bird’ Meets ‘Rent’ in Stunning Drama


The Big Picture

  • Malu is a powerful exploration of generational trauma, with phenomenal performances and a rich script.
  • The film examines complex mother-daughter relationships, showcasing how alliances can shift and tensions can arise.
  • The ending raises questions about the cycle of generational trauma and the potential for true change in the future.

If you enjoy Gilmore Girls’ frequently irreverent intergenerational dynamics, Lady Bird’s rawly honest depiction of mother-daughter relationships, or Rent’s simultaneous lamentation and celebration of what it means to be a scrappy artist, odds are you’re going to like Malu. Pedro Freire’s directorial debut is an authentic and explosive exploration of motherhood, daughterhood, and artist-hood that is interested in the fascinating ways they can intersect and clash and how all of these roles are inherently political.


Malu, a 50 year old unemployed actress living off memories of her glorious past, shares a run-down home in a Rio de Janeiro slum with her conservative mother, whilst also dealing with a troubled relationship with her own daughter.

Release Date
January 21, 2024

Pedro Freire

Yara de Novaes , Juliana Carneiro da Cunha , Carol Duarte , Átila Bee

100 minutes

What Is ‘Malu’ About?

The film revolves around the titular character of Malu (Yara de Novaes), a middle-aged woman living in Rio de Janeiro. Though struggling financially, she opens up her home to her conservative mother, Lili (Juliana Carneiro da Cunha), who harshly judges her for her life choices, particularly when it comes to the diverse group of fellow artists she hangs around and routinely also hosts at her home.

The house grows fuller when Malu’s daughter Joana (Carol Duarte) returns from studying abroad. Joana also has aspirations of being onstage and is even determined to go live out her dreams in São Paulo. Though their reunion is initially a happy one, cracks start to show in their relationship the longer Joana stays with Malu. Between Malu refusing to do any work on the house (which has seemingly endless problems, including cockroaches and a leaky roof) until Joana’s father puts the entire thing in her name and some jealousy she fosters towards her daughter’s flourishing career, the tension becomes nearly too much to bear. And the things that bond them — their united front against Lili’s criticism and their shared passion for theater — threaten to be the very things that tear them apart.

‘Malu’s Performances Are Mesmerizing

Image via Sundance

Malu’s greatest strength lies in its complex characters and trio of powerful performances. Everyone has strengths, flaws, and wounds — and it’s easy to see how the former two developed because of the latter. It’s particularly fascinating to see how the three generations of women play off each other and how alliances constantly shift. Things as innocuous as a rice recipe can rapidly escalate and turn loyalties 180 degrees, and it miraculously never feels like melodrama but rather a believable response these characters would have. There are points where this can feel a little choppy, and it’s not always as clear as it could be why the characters are at odds or when they made up. But then again, there’s a fine line between love and hate, and sometimes the pendulum can swing without us even being completely cognizant of why.

de Novaes is instantly captivating as Malu. The charisma and joy she exudes makes us want to root for her despite some of her choices proving difficult to justify. She’s extremely smart, but she refuses to grow up. She’s charming yet unpredictable. She’s highly ambitious, but we know that — even with her big talk — she’s never to accomplish what she’s determined to, as she’s too stuck in the past to ever take the steps necessary to set herself up for the future. The tragedy is that Malu is her own worst enemy and is unable to get out of her own way. de Novaes plays her with a natural magnetism reminiscent of Greta Gerwig’s Brooke in Mistress America, effortlessly toeing the line between fiery confidence and almost desperate insecurity. She shows massive range, commanding comedic and dramatic material sometimes in the same scene, like when her reveling in getting sacrilegious to a priest her mother invites home quickly spirals into an unsettling physical confrontation.

‘Malu’ Explores Generational Trauma

Yara de Novaes as Malu and Carol Duarte as Joana in Malu
Image via Sundance

da Cunha’s performance is often quieter than de Novaes’ but just as poignant, and a gutting three-and-a-half-minute monologue she gives not only emerges as the most haunting and memorable moment of the film but serves as its thesis statement of sorts: trauma is often inflicted by the traumatized. Freire’s script does an excellent job of driving that point home through subtle repetition, such as “ugly” as an insult and incest accusations. Freire wants us to feel compassion for Lili, and then he wants us to feel conflicted about that. After all, Lili is outwardly racist and homophobic, doing and saying some truly unforgivable things. Her past is not an excuse for that, but it’s an explanation. Does that matter? Should we still sympathize with her? Should Malu? There’s still love between them — Malu is adamant about not sending Lili to a retirement home, and Lili encourages Joana to show her mother understanding — but at what point does that cease to be enough? At what point does the hurt and toxicity outweigh it?

These questions start to be posed between Malu and Joana, too. “To survive as an artist in Brazil,” Malu’s friend Tibira (Átila Bee) warns, “you have to do all kinds of things.” And Joana resents some of those things. Malu may have been a cool mother from the outside, but Joana feels she was neglectful, as she always brushed off caretaking tasks as work for housewives. Joana accuses Malu of using her progressive beliefs as an excuse to be selfish. “This isn’t feminism,” she snaps at one point, “it’s Malusim, and it only works for you.” Malu, in turn, believes that Joana is too soft, too sensitive, too spoiled. Malu is bitter that she had to live through so much political turmoil and hardship, but she’s also bitter that Joana didn’t have to. It’s a timeless dilemma of wanting better for your children while mourning the world you didn’t get to have. One of their biggest fights is filmed in the middle of a rainstorm, the cold blue lighting and shadows reminiscent of a bruise.

‘Malu’s Ending Packs a Punch Despite Its Odd Pacing


The pacing can feel a bit strange, particularly going into the third act, which can lead to some confusion. The absence of cues indicating how much time has passed between events can leave us playing catch-up for a few moments, though thankfully, it isn’t hugely distracting. The thing that forces a reunion between Malu and Joana feels a bit random and narratively convenient as it stands, but it works well enough and is based on real-life events, so it doesn’t detract too much from its intended impact.

Without giving too much away, the ending examines the bittersweet inevitability of aging and the natural reversals that occur. It raises questions about the cycle of generational trauma and whether it will be continued. A child is left to comfort their parent, and their parent is left to reflect on how the world has changed — and how it hasn’t. Malu is still stuck in the past, but new advancements cause her to finally look to the future, too — not to Joana and her generation but to the one after. But will it ever be enough? Will there ever be true change? Or will there always be resentments, always be regrets, always be ghosts inherited from past generations that linger and stop real advancements from being made? Malu doesn’t have the answers to those questions, but it does a highly compelling job of posing them.

Malu Sundance Film Festival 2024 Sample Image



Malu is a powerful, female-focused exploration of generational trauma.


  • Phenomenal performances
  • A rich, challenging script that raises complex questions
  • Smart cinematography and direction that enhance the writing and acting

  • Confusing pacing
  • A convenient conflict leads to the conclusion

Malu had its World Premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.


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