Film Review: ‘Breaking Fast’ finds color outside the lines of the traditional gay rom-com
In a year filled with devastating news and several anxiety attacks, I’ve found solace in the fact the gay rom-com is now everywhere. From Freeform to Lifetime to Hulu, networks and studios are finally giving us that queer representation and normalization that we so deserve. They’re just all so… white.
If you’re looking for a gay rom-com that doesn’t blind you with its caucasity then look no further, Breaking Fast is here to bring some culture into your rom-com routine. Written and directed by Mike Mosallam, this indie rom-com tells the story of a gay Muslim man who finds romance during the Islamic holiday of Ramadan. Studios, networks, and executives across the industry could learn a thing or two from the wickedly original and non-stereotypical representation that Mossallam brings not just for queer people, but also for people from the Middle East & North Africa.
For those unfamiliar, Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims (who are healthy and able) participate in daily fasting from sunrise to sunset. To prepare for each day they get up before the sunrise to eat a good meal, called suhoor, and after sunset they break their fast with dinner, called iftar, which roughly translates to breaking fast.
The film begins on the last day of Ramadan, introducing us to Mohammad, or Mo (Haaz Sleiman), and his boyfriend as they are about to enjoy the last iftar. Before dinner, Mohammad’s world is turned upside down when his relationship comes to an abrupt end. We quickly pick up 11 months later, to the beginning of Ramadan, and Mo is single. While most films might have put Mo in his ex’s shoes, Breaking Fast isn’t here to tell the story of a gay Muslim man struggling with his identity and his faith. Instead, the film explores the idea of what it’s like to be in harmony with both your faith and your sexual identity. Mo is supported by his family as a gay man, has a good job, and is confident in his practice of Islam. After last Ramadan, however, he’s not so confident in romantic relationships and his best friend Sam (Amin El Gamal) invites him to his birthday party in an effort to get Mo back into the dating pool.
It’s at this party we meet Kal (Michael Cassidy), a very attractive and well-mannered party guest who surprises Mo & Sam with his knowledge of Arabic after they try to gossip about him in secret. After an adorable meet-cute, the magic really begins. The two quickly get to know each other, and before long Kal is breaking fast with Mo every single night as we witness the birth of a beautiful relationship over the course of Ramadan.
An original premise, Breaking Fast succeeds in giving us what all rom-com lovers enjoy: Believable characters with chemistry, cute moments, and cheesy over-the-top confessions that make you smile. While it’s not perfect — I would have liked this better as a story about two Arab men, versus the continuous trope of the hot white boyfriend for people of color — it makes you care about characters that you rarely see in this industry, and that’s really why I love this movie so much.
For too long, when people make movies about ethnicities other than Caucasian it’s always about some sort of struggle. The struggle to fit into American life, the struggle to prove yourself as more than a Muslim, or the struggle to accept yourself in a different society. While these films aim to stop the othering of different races, showing them consistently struggling actually continues that othering and tries to explain how similar they are DESPITE their differences. In a country filled with multiple ethnicities, races, gender identities, religions, and so many more diverse facets, being different is American. Breaking Fast shows us this, without dumbing anything down or separating culture from country. We are welcomed into the lives of Arab-Americans, educated on their customs, and shown the beauty of living in two societies simultaneously.
American audiences can learn a lot from Islamic and Middle Eastern culture by watching this film. From the very on-point representation of Middle Eastern families to the delicious food that Mo and Kal cook every night, it’s a wonderful way to dip your toes into a culture you might be unfamiliar with. One of my biggest qualms with the film, however, is that the music is strictly American. I’d have loved to hear more Arabic tunes and listen in on the culture as I watched it unfold on screen.
It was enjoyable to witness my culture be shared in a way that is immediately accessible and understandable to a global audience. Having shied away from Islam and Middle Eastern customs at a very young age myself, only just now accepting and getting immersed in it, watching Kal get introduced to facets of Islam and Middle Eastern culture was mesmerizing because I, too, was learning alongside him.
Though it was when Sam’s character finally expressed the rarity of Mo’s situation that I really fell in love with the depth of Breaking Fast. Yes, there are certainly those in our culture that are easily accepted and loved by their family after coming out, but the traditional mindset and highly religious attitudes often cast out queer Arabs by mere proximity. If you’re not told outright that you are accepted and loved for who you are, these customs make you feel as if you are not welcome, too different, and not traditional enough.
Gamal does a wonderful job of portraying the non-practicing Muslim, the one one who will not sacrifice being himself for the sake of his religion, who has gone through his own challenges of feeling accepted by his faith. This isn’t the central story of Breaking Fast, but to exclude it completely would be a lie and a disservice to the gay Arab Muslim men watching this film. For a lot of us, it is a struggle being gay and Muslim. It is a fight to accept yourself amidst tradition and religion telling you that you have to do this or do that to fit in and go to Heaven.
Mossallam does a fantastic job tying both of these experiences into the film. While Mo doesn’t have to struggle with his identity or his faith, Sam does. While Mo shows us what a practicing Muslim is like, Sam shows us the many, many Muslims who don’t practice or pray 5 times a day. In order to really understand the Islamic world, you need to see both of these men, to hear both of their stories, because too many people on this earth think that people like Sam don’t exist.
Breaking Fast is a cute romantic comedy for anyone interested in the genre and an even better exploration of intersectionality between identity, culture, and faith. I have a feeling that films like this are just the tip of the iceberg that Hollywood has finally begun to explore and I look forward to seeing many more stories like Mo’s and Sam’s, to show the world what the Islamic and Arab world is really like, outside of the stereotypes and caricatures that have gone on for far too long.
Breaking Fast can next be seen at the New Orleans Film Festival (through November 22). It is slated for US release and VOD in 2021 from Vertical Entertainment.
Tariq Raouf is an entertainment freelancer based in Seattle, and has been writing about television for about 6 years. He’s also a member of GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics and a proud owner of a gorgeous Poodle/Schnauzer rescue named Raven.