Small cast, quiet movies, made with nearly no budget are something of an acquired taste for modern audiences. The Art of Self Defense, starring Jesse Eisenberg, rewards fans of such films with dark laughter amidst moments of personal triumph for which the characters really ought to be punished.

The plot is fairly straightforward. An overtly suppressed staff accountant, Casey (Eisenberg), is mugged one night. Terrified of his own shadow, Casey seeks the means for protecting himself and overcoming his crippling fear. On his journey through toxic-masculinity, he wanders into a karate studio and its cult-like  and dangerous world of hierarchical belts, led by a sensei (Alessandro Nivola) who demands his students give a full measure of devotion. Casey’s exploration into this exaggerated world transforms him, pretty much exactly as Sensei plans.

The cast is rounded out by the dojo’s children’s class instructor “Anna” (played by Imogen Poots). She is a true believer whose self-deprecation to fit into her “natural” place in the culture of the dojo gives cringe-worthy moments that completely fit the narrative.

The acting is excellent. Eisenberg sways into positively robotic, but these moments are obviously purposeful. Each character has a dual nature, and each actor pulls it off.

The cinematography is up close and personal, giving an air of contemplation. The fighting sequences are less “fight-scene” and more illustrative. The quietness of it all adds to the shock value of the surprising moments.

It is hard to discuss much of this film without giving away spoilers. Although we do see some of the twists coming – and there are a few – the real surprises are in their resolutions. Overall, The Art of Self Defense is worth a viewing in a theater with good popcorn, but I suspect it will hold up well on a smaller screen, too.