Thursday, June 20, 2024

Breaking Fast Is the Incisive Romcom Gay Muslims Deserve

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Having watched multiple holiday films for December’s episode of That’s Haram! there was no movie I was excited for more than Breaking Fast from writer and director Mike Mosallam. I knew that it would likely be a fun film, but I had no idea that I would end the film incredibly emotional and more excited for the future of inclusive Muslim storytelling.

As a hilarious but emotional romcom, Breaking Fast fully earns a happy ending for its leads, while being an incredibly nuanced, incisive, and much-needed portrayal of gay Muslim experiences.

Starring Haaz Sleiman, Michael Cassidy, Amin El Gamal, Patrick Sabongui, Christopher J. Hanke, Rula Gardenier, Veronica Cartwright, and Aline Elasmar, the film is set against the twinkling lights of West Hollywood.

Breaking Fast is a romantic comedy that follows Mo, a practicing Muslim still reeling from heartbreak. When an All-American guy named Kal offers to join him in his nightly Iftars – the traditional meal eaten by Muslims during Ramadan – meal after meal, the two start to discover they have more in common than meets the eye.

Breaking Fast
Breaking Fast a Feast

From the start, this film pulls no punches with Mo (Sleiman) and his boyfriend Hassan (Patrick Sabongui) breaking up on the last iftar because someone has threatened to out Hassan to his parents. Hassan suggests that he marry a woman to tide things over with his family, which does not go well with Mo. Understandably taken aback and frustrated, Mo doesn’t take time to think about what it means for Hassan to fear his father finding out the truth when for all the audience knows, Mo’s parents and grandmother have supported him forever.

The movie picks up a year later with Mo still down after his break-up and his best friend, fabulously gay Sam (El-Gamal) trying to get him to date again. Of course, this is a rom-com so there’s a hilarious meet-cute at Sam’s umpteenth 25th birthday party where Mo and Kal (Michael Cassidy) run into one another and end up on a walk around West Hollywood.

Breaking Fast birthday party scene
Mo, Sam, and John.

Mo and Kal slowly bond over their shared love of Superman who Kal is named after, show-tunes (yas Sound of Music!) and eating Arab food together each night for iftar, literally breaking fast, which Kal cooks! Yes, the all-American white guy can cook Arab food having spent most of his childhood in Jordan on a military base. Be warned that the incredible food montage will make you hungry and crave hummus and knafeh. Also, laugh too hard because of a certain moment with vegetables in the grocery.

This aspect of Kal’s character is fascinating because any other way to make it work so that Kal offers to cook iftar just seems too on the nose. The added layer of his growing up on a military base in the Arab world adds so much complexity to the story bypassing any need for PSA-style scenes. Also, it’s just super refreshing to see a white all-American man who isn’t judging the Muslim lead!

Arab and white man sitting at kitchen island.
Mo and Kal at one of their first iftars.

Their romance is incredibly wholesome as it progresses with truly entertaining getting to know each other scenes where Mossalam directs Sleiman and Cassidy to utilize silences between phrases to their advantage until of course, the dreaded romcom conflicts arise

Meaningful Over Contrived Conflicts Triumph

Conflicts raise this movie above all the other holiday films starring gay men because they have weight and mean something. We know that Mo and Kal will end up together because that’s what the genre requires of the characters. However unlike unearned gentrification concerns or “character A doesn’t want to leave their city job” shenanigans in Hallmark, Lifetime, etc., the issues that come up between Mo and Kal are legitimately deal breakers.

See, Breaking Fast is a love letter to gay Muslims and really anyone who has or is grappling with their faith and identities. Mo is devout! He prays, fasts, is dedicated to not doing anything impure which might break his fasts, and even makes sure his shoes are lined up and never upside down. This is a reference to how many of us grew up being told that it’s haram to show the soles of feet to Allah (or rude to show them to others). In fact, it’s a great look into Mo’s character because as a gastroenterologist, he’s also very meticulous (read set in his ways), and boy does it show.

I was born gay and I love God.

Mo partway through the film.

On the other side, we’ve got Hassan who wasn’t out, gets married (spoiler alert does end up getting divorced and slowly patching things up with his family) and Sam who isn’t observant at all and actively has issues with Islam and its approval or acceptance of gay identity. Well, really the lack thereof. Mo with an incredibly supportive family, whose mother even calls Hassan names over a hilarious phone call, is unfortunately incredibly frustrating because of one major personality flaw.

He’s always brightsiding issues! Unable to truly empathize or sympathize with others, his positive experiences with Islam make it so that he can’t truly support Hassan at the start of the movie or understand why Sam is so not into the proud gay Muslim thing. Think “well my family loves me so everyone’s family must love them too, la la la rose glasses.” Cursed.

Then there’s Kal who we learn has been hiding the full truth from Mo. Which by the way, same goes for Mo. Most romcoms don’t go all-in on the secrets as Mosallam does, and the film is more spectacular for it.

Ultimately Mo’s behaviors and the lies of omission come to a head when at a double date with Mo and Kal and Sam and John, Sam and Mo have a nearly knock-out fight near the end of Ramadan about their faith and experiences.

Arab and white man sitting next to one another at dinner.
Mo and Kal at the dramatic dinner.

With lines like “people kill in God’s name every day, absolving God’s role in that doesn’t help the persecuted” (Sam, oof) and “you have to be a Muslim to be a Muslim nobody” (Mo, sir?!?), the dinner scene is a playthrough of conversations that I’ve had myself and I know many others have too.

The fight between Mo and Sam ends with Kal needing to rush to the hospital that Mo works at for reasons I won’t spoil and the resulting conversation is the last straw for Kal who point-blank asks what Mo likes about him, who to Kal’s (and everyone else’s) great frustration DOESN’T ANSWER. Which to be slightly fairer, finding out that Kal lied about a family member for the second time after a very haram iftar fight is definitely a lot to swallow. However, you don’t just let the man you clearly love go!!!

Fortunately, this is a romcom so Mo does apologize to Sam and finally accepts advice to just listen to other people for once! For a doctor, I sure hope Mo does a better job of listening to his patients during the workday. (The hospital scenes do indicate he isn’t awful at his job but I worry.)

From there we get a lovely Mo wins Kal back over moment, and of course, the last iftar where Kal wins over Mo’s family with the wonderful Mashrou’ Leila’s Im-Bim-Bililah playing over their meal leading into the much-awaited first kiss to mark the film’s ending.

Breaking Fast is a film that anyone can and should watch, but it’s truly written for all the gay Muslims (gay faithful really) at any point in their journey with their multi-faceted identities. It’s also an incredibly inclusive film that truly feels gay and Muslim and Arab and so on and so forth.

Not only does it star multiple gay actors and characters in a variety of roles, but every background actor was also clearly and thoughtfully decided on, and the dialogue is reflective of the real world. Mo’s scenes with his mother especially remind me of conversations with my own mother and all the aunties in the world who just want the best for their child.

Its success and ability to make me cry is a testament to Mosallam’s delightful script and direction and Sleiman, Cassidy, and El-Gamel’s superb portrayal of their truly realistic characters. Who else could effectively make Sound of Music a through-thread and key romantic bit?! I can’t wait to see what they all have coming next and really hope that Hallmark takes their lead in getting more real in their inclusive films this winter.

You can watch the film now on demand. Stay tuned for February’s episode of That’s Haram! where Kori and I will talk much more in-depth about the film, and for something else special later that month.

Images courtesy of Mike Mossallam Productions.

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