County Lines is an impressive feature debut for director Henry Blake, who based the story on real incidents from his time as a youth worker. The film is simultaneously a gritty and unpleasant crime drama about kids groomed into drug trafficking, and a rounded, sympathetic view of adolescence and family on the margins of austerity Britain.
County Lines’ chief merit is young Conrad Khan, who plays 14-year-old Tyler with impressive subtlety throughout his grim journey. Early scenes between Tyler, his mum and his little sister (Ashley Madekwe and Tabitha Milne-Price, respectively) are studded with small moments of love and humour that emphasise the ensuing darkness.
Khan shows us Tyler’s dissatisfaction and helplessness in the face of poverty, and the mixture of desperation and curiosity that draws him into the net of local pusher Simon (Harris Dickinson, alternating chummy and nasty). Khan makes Tyler’s fear and tension palpable as he is sent on drug-running errands, and in turn makes Tyler scary when he returns home; a changed boy.
Thanks to Khan, and Blake’s intelligent script, we understand why Tyler makes the choices he does, and we feel for him even as he builds up layers of put-on aggression that eventually transform into real violence. This violence is County Lines’ most contentious aspect; despite the film’s realism and true-life credentials, it is the part that feels most intended to shock for shock’s sake, in the exploitative vein of more mainstream gritty Brit-crime movies.
Ultimately, our sympathy for Tyler makes County Lines a cut above the norm. The figure of the hooded teenage criminal, so often a two-dimensional villain in austerity narratives, is here treated as a complex human being. The result is an emotionally rich film that exhausts its audience almost as much as its characters, but which is well worth the effort.
CAST: Conrad Khan, Ashley Madekwe, Harris Dickinson, Tabitha Milne-Price
DIRECTOR: Henry Blake
WRITER: Henry Blake
SYNOPSIS: Drama about a mother and her fourteen year old boy who is groomed into a lethal nationwide drug selling enterprise, a ‘County Line’, which exploits vulnerable children and traffics them across Britain.