Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s debut feature When Morning Comes opens with a lush drone shot of a tropical forest. After a few moments, a road appears nearby on the left with a bus that Jamal (Djamari Roberts) and his mother Neesha (Shaquana Wilson) are riding on. One would assume it is a simple shot to establish the setting but, as the film unfolds, the rich beauty of the island—including the various people that inhabit it—reveals itself to be one of the most vital components of the story.
The vibrancy and culture that Jamaica embodies is shown through the young eyes of Jamal, who is a few weeks away from his 10th birthday. Living in Portland with his mother, things have been difficult for the pair since his Jamal’s father passed away. It does not help matters that he’s recently been suspended from school and his mother is too angry to hear the full reason why.
Despite proclaiming his innocence, the suspension serves as further proof in his mother’s eyes that a drastic change is needed. Fearing what could happen if they continue their current path, Neesha makes the bold decision to send Jamal to live with his grandmother in Canada. While she sees it as an opportunity for a better life that she can afford to give him—Neesha works as a maid for the wealthy family whose daughter her son has a crush on—Jamal views it as an unjust punishment for the incident at school.
Annoyed by the news of his impending departure, Jamal leaves home and ends up staying over at his best friend Deshane’s (Jarden Crooks) house. Roaming Portland with his pal, Jamal shares his heavy heart with the various individuals, and father figures like Deshane’s dad, he encounters. In return, many of them advise him of the pros and cons of a Canadian life, or at least what some have heard second hand, which only makes the country seem even more abstract than what his young eyes can see or imagine.
It is in Jamal’s journey around Portland, a wandering farewell of sorts to the only life he has ever known, that the powerful glow of Fyffe-Marshall’s film truly radiates. Rather than simply presenting Jamaica as an island paradise, like most travelogues tend to do, When Morning Comes understands that one of island’s greatest treasures is the people its soil produces. The genuine sense of community permeates every corner of this film. It is commonly said that it takes a village to raise a child and Fyffe-Marshall shows us that village. Although the film hints at the problems that threaten to sink its claws into Jamal if he remains, the danger is always kept to the margins just off screen.
By dropping subtle breadcrumbs to what is occurring on the margins, which is a direct result of the damaging impact that the legacy of colonization has had on Jamaica, Fyffe-Marshall ensures that one understands the difficult choices that some in the community are forced to make. This is most evident in Neesha, whose whole life was upended with her husband’s passing. Although she believes her decision is in her son’s best interest, her faith is rattled by the sense of guilt that she might be making the wrong move. While many films about individuals emigrating to Canada focus on their lives upon arriving to the country, When Morning Comes understands that the complexities of such a life-changing event start long before they touch foreign soil.
Anchored by strong performances by Roberts and Wilson, stunning cinematography from long time collaborator Jordan Oram, and an amazing soundtrack, there is much to engulf oneself here. Fyffe-Marshall’s constructs a poetically beautiful and heartfelt love letter to Jamaica and sense of community it fosters. When Morning Comes is a mesmerizing work that both delivers on the promise Fyffe-Marshall displayed in her short films and solidifies her as one of the most exciting voices in cinema.
When Morning Comes screens as a part of TIFF 2022, which runs from September 8 to 18. Head here for more from the festival.