OutFest Fusion & Cinequest 2020 Film Review: Breaking Fast ★★★★

Back in 2015, director Mike Mosallam’s short film Breaking Fast played a number of respected film festivals, including Cannes. He has now adapted the short into a full-length feature, also titled Breaking Fast, which premieres at Cinequest 2020 and OutFest Fusion this weekend. The feature film is a warm, heartfelt romantic comedy about two seemingly different men learning how to open up to one another across cultural divides.

One year ago, on the last night of Ramadan, gay Muslim Mo (Haaz Sleiman) realized that his years-long relationship was coming to an end. He’s spent the last year in a funk, primarily going to work at a hospital, working out with his best friend Sam (Amin El Gamal) at a delightfully disco-ball-lit dance class that looks straight out of a 1980s workout VHS, and then going home to his house in West Hollywood alone.

Now, the holy month of Ramadan is beginning again. On the first night, the less-observant Sam forces Mo to go to his birthday party, despite the fact that Mo doesn’t drink. There, he meets the attractive, “All-American” white guy Kal (Michael Cassidy), a flirtatious actor who just so happens to speak Arabic thanks to time spent in Jordan when he was younger. Mo is resistant at first, but he’s touched that Kal takes such a genuine interest in his faith; similarly, when Kal reveals that his full name is Kal-El — yes, like Superman — he’s amused to find Mo willing to re-enact a scene from the Christopher Reeve film, and that Mo is naturally willing to play the Margot Kidder part.

The next night, the two run into each other again, and Kal invites himself over to Mo’s to help him cook for iftar, the traditional meal that breaks the fast at the end of each day during Ramadan. Over the course of the month, the two break fast together nearly every day as they grow closer, learning their way around each other’s insecurities and stubbornness, figuring out whether their growing connection is friendship, mutual attraction, or something even more.

Haaz Sleiman as Mo takes a moment to pray.

There is a lot to love about Breaking Fast, not least of which are the shots of food. This is a very gastronomic film, one that recognizes the power of food to both define and cross cultural boundaries, and the photography of the various traditional dishes that Mo and Kal cook together is just sumptuous. I was ravenously hungry after watching, and I was viscerally uncomfortable during one scene where an oblivious, proudly ignorant white gay character is suspicious of food he’s unfamiliar with.

The film’s performances are pitch-perfect as well. Haaz Sleiman, who I loved on Nurse Jackie, is a wonderfully vulnerable actor to build the film around. He has a certain way of looking at his co-stars that cuts right to the film’s emotional core, eyes wide and threatening at any moment to fill with tears — of hurt, of longing, of tenderness. This is a character who holds the world at a remove to avoid getting hurt, and Sleiman’s performance reveals Mo’s mask as a mask and lets us see the tender, deeply caring man inside, one longing to be loved.

Michael Cassidy is great as Kal. At first, he seems rather like the stereotypical “masc” gay guy to Mo’s more effete characterization. But Mo calls him on it during one of their first interactions, musing how easy it must be for him to move through the world — “Life must be so easy for guys like you,” he says. “The arms, the height, the endless options of well-worn tank tops… Mega-attractive guys have more options.”

“I hate tank-tops,” Kal retorts playfully. And then, not so playfully: “What I know is that a gay, Arab, Muslim guy in WeHo probably knows what it’s like to have people make assumptions about him. They’re generally incorrect and they never feel good. I have to work harder to be taken seriously. …but it’s nice to know you think I’m mega-attractive.” The film is primarily interested in exploring these tensions along lines of race, faith, class, and gender presentation, which makes for a more thematically-rich romantic comedy than your average film about two people who just find each other physically attractive.

The film’s setting in West Hollywood draws these conflicts out, as well. I moved to LA last year and have spent a fair bit of time in WeHo, to the point where I know one of the actors with a smaller part and have had my own romantic spark with someone at the same bar karaoke night where the film’s climax takes place. However, I recognize that my experience of WeHo is on some level informed by the fact that I’m a white, cis gay man, and that the city (considered such a “gay Mecca” to some) may unfortunately feel far less welcoming to people of different races. Even though he lives there, Mo says, he feels like an outsider. Crucially, though, so too does Kal, and figuring out what that means forms the emotional crux of the film. After all, there’s nothing more all-American than Superman… but he too was an alien.

Mo and Kal recreate a pivotal scene from Superman on the West Hollywood sidewalks.

I really appreciated that the film leaned into all of that instead of shying away from it. In other words, the WeHo setting complicates and informs the film’s project of bridging cultural divides… and on some level, of finding out that maybe those divides don’t require as big of a bridge as one might have assumed. The central conceit of breaking fast during Ramadan, too, provides a nice metaphorical echo of the walls people put up early in relationships and the rules they set for themselves. It’s not the religious part that bothers Kal whatsoever; it’s that Mo won’t really believe him.

My one criticism of the film would be that the requisite, rom-com staple “couple clearly meant for each other has a fight and a falling-out” scene doesn’t really land. As with many rom-coms, it’s the result of a miscommunication, and everything would be fine if everyone just calmed down and spoke to each other like they actually cared about each other, which they so clearly do. However, I do understand that that’s also kind of the point; these are people who struggle with communication, so it’s ultimately a lesson we need to see them learn. I just wish it had been handled with a bit more subtlety.

Overall, though, Breaking Fast is a beautifully-acted story of two people who seem different on paper learning to trust one another and finding out that they both want the same things. It hits familiar rom-com beats, but in a surprising, thematically rich way. It’s definitely worth checking out, and I can’t wait to see what Mike Mosallam does next.

By Eric Langberg

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