In 1960’s Poland, novice nun Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is instructed to meet her only living relative: her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) before she can be allowed to take her vows. Wanda, a former judge under the Communist regime, reveals to Anna that her real name is Ida, that she’s Jewish, and that her parents were murdered during World War II. Together, the worldly, cynical middle-aged woman and the naïve young nun set out to find Anna/Ida’s parents’ grave, as well as the man who murdered them.

Ida is a deeply internal movie. Characters speak little and outwardly emote even less. It’s drenched in postwar communist ennui, reinforced by the stark black and white and the confining Academy aspect ratio. The music is solely diegetic, with no soundtrack to tell the viewer how to feel. It’s a slow-burn story that finds meaning in the little moments between big events, rather than in the events themselves. It’s the strangest kind of road trip movie, filtered through European art film sensibilities.

Trzebuchowska makes one of the best acting debuts in recent memory as Anna/Ida. The character’s actions, especially in the late stages of the story, are laced with ambiguity. You can read what you will into Anna’s motivations, thoughts, and feelings, but it’s not always clear what’s going on in her head. The brilliance of Trzebuchowska’s performance is that it’s plain that there is something going on with her. There’s a crucial distinction there, between real acting and the alternative, which is just coming across as blank. Kulesza’s brusque openness stands in good contrast to her co-star. Their diametrically opposed beliefs and behaviors are a simple but effective plot device.

“Effective simplicity” describes the whole film, in fact. It’s a brief 80 minutes, getting straight to business, staying for a while, and then wrapping itself up in a neat, matter-of-fact fashion. Such creative economy is a welcome change of pace from the various kinds of overstuffed movies that are out there, and I’m not even talking about the fact that we’re entering blockbuster season. But that simplicity delivers a thought-provoking story about identity. Anna has grown up believing herself to be one kind of person, and that the world works a certain way. Then, quite abruptly, she learns that a good deal of what she thought about herself is wrong, and this leads her to question what else she may be wrong about. The movie does not cast judgment on the choices she makes, suggesting that it’s more important that she makes them instead of continuing in unthinking obedience to dogma.

For all its stiffness, there are moments of immense emotion in Ida. Any story that’s tied to the Holocaust that’s worth its salt will understand how to wring the senselessness out of that subject. Decades after the horror, all that’s left is numbness. But when Anna/Ida and Wanda come upon the graves of their loved ones, the understated pain is arresting. Ida is a great little movie about faith, family, and how we choose to define ourselves. It should not go overlooked.