Mike Mossalam’s debut feature is a vibrant mosaic of Queer Arab Muslim-American life.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Reeling Chicago International LGBTQ+ Film Festival.)
It’s deliciously ironic that the opener for the Reeling LGBTQ+ Film Festival begins with an ending. Breaking Fast opens on the closing night of Ramadan and continues its cycles of closing and openings. Paths in life close off; hearts (re)open. Oven doors shut, warmth spreads out.
Mike Mosallam’s debut feature film follows Mo, a practicing Muslim queer who, after a painful separation, must negotiate single life as an Arab, religious, and gay in West Hollywood. We see him grow from someone who feels lost to someone who loves again and has more faith in his footing. The nuances that Mosallam presents as writer and director make for rewarding morsels of representation after a long period of being denied a space at the table.
As Mo, Haaz Sleiman brings a fortitude that, fittingly for the character, begins quite cold but soon warms and becomes much softer as he lets his guard down. One of the most intricate details of Mosallam’s project is the way Mo’s faith intersects with his every-day life, Sleiman perfectly capturing the comfort and conflict of queer Arab religiosity through his eyes and gestures. These unspoken characterizations are just as important to Mosallam’s overall goal, bringing a complex cultural discussion to the fore.
From the beginning, Mosallam constructs a vibrant mosaic of Queer Arab Muslim Americans, as he, his ex Hasan, and his femme friend Sam all intersect with these categories in different ways. This is discussed in a very interesting dinner scene, where Sam and Mo meet each other’s white boyfriends. Sam’s boyfriend John is the cartoon outline of the ignorant white gay: he’s there to be made an example of, the ass we pin tails on. He’s also there to serve as a foil to the “good” white guy, Mo’s boyfriend, Kal (short for Kal-el).
Using a specifically queer lens, Mosallam corrects histories and discourses out the vibrant variations of cultural and religious practices. Mo sees how Islam and Queerness inform and support each other. Sam, as a femme and thus a victim of more violence, cannot easily separate historical reality from theology. Importantly, Mosallam makes sure to leave this conversation unresolved. The opinions are at odds and can’t be solved over a meal, but this can show how intra-cultural differences are lived with and accepted amongst queer kin.
Kal is a curious construction for this type of project, a former army kid who learned Arabic and Middle Eastern cooking while on the army base. He confounds typical understandings of what it means to be Arabic and to share in Arabic culture. How is a white man as fluent in Arab culture as actual Arabs? Mosallam doesn’t really unpack this, nor does it present any problems. Kal just happens to be an adorable white guy who respects Mo’s faith practice, speaks fluent Arabic, cooks delicious Arabic food, is sober like Mo, and likes the same movies. It’s all curiously perfect, though I suppose not impossible.
Histories are corrected and the vibrant variations of cultural and religious practices are discoursed out through a specifically queer lens.
So much of Breaking Fast is about realizing the possible. It wants and needs to be believable to work and get its message across. This is why the film’s small moments of high melodrama, largely centered around Kal, feel extraneous — they don’t further any character or relational development. Veronica Cartwright is never a waste, though, and I will gladly support any extraneous plot point that has her appear.
There’s also a heaping helping of sentimentality, which some may find cloying given the way it counterbalances the melodrama. But at least the sentimental moments, which center around Mo and Kal’s love of Nerd Culture, show Mo’s complex engagement with mainstream American culture that we rarely are privy to.
For all its rocky moments, Breaking Fast breaks new, important ground, ending a famine of Queer Arab representation with richness, sweetness, and just the right amount of salt. In so doing, Mosallam crafts a dish rich with care, for everyone to enjoy.