County Lines (4 stars)

County Lines

Empathetic drug trafficking drama from debut writer-director Henry Blake

The explosion in 'county lines' drug trafficking is explored with empathy in the feature debut of New Zealand-born, London-based filmmaker Henry Blake. Building on his 2017 short, he draws on his considerable experience as a youth worker to fashion a poignant and informative social realist drama.

Used to describe the expansion of narcotic operations from big cities to small towns and the phone numbers used to shift product, county lines thrives on simple, exploitative arrangements. Vulnerable children are transformed into disposable flunkies, transporting and selling drugs and getting embroiled in turf wars, as they assume much of the risk with negligible reward.

Beginning in London, Conrad Khan plays Tyler, the 14-year-old social outcast son of struggling single mother Toni (Ashley Madekwe). Already in a pupil referral unit, he's disengaged from his studies and the target of bullies. Toni works night-shifts as a cleaner and Tyler fills in as carer for his younger sister, something he really shines at. But if money is tight, their home feels safe and loving – it's a hard life, not yet a desperate one. However, when Toni loses her job Tyler feels obliged to step up, falling under the spell of the shifty Simon (portrayed chillingly by rising star Harris Dickinson).

Stark and sombre in tone, the film offers both glimmers of hope and constant reality checks. Tyler's teacher Laurence (Anthony Adjekum) carefully builds a rapport with him and a specialist steps in when they notice what he's become involved in. However, decent alternatives to a life of crime are still lacking – there's mention of Tyler's talent as a footballer but it's never suggested that this could be a possible route out.

Using low angles, an overcast aesthetic and camerawork that's either static or almost imperceptibly probing, it's a film that feels both intimate and unobtrusive, holding us discomfortingly in Tyler's predicament, creating a feeling of being trapped by circumstances – poverty, responsibility, family legacy – as the vultures circle. The dialogue is more on-the-nose than the direction but the performances are persuasive and, as it lays bare an inhumane issue in unflashy and compassionate style, this is a valiant attempt to bring a stomach-churning subject to the fore.

On digital and in cinemas Fri 4 Dec.

County Lines

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • UK
  • 1h 30min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Henry Blake
  • Cast: Harris Dickinson, Ashley Madekwe, Marcus Rutherford
  • UK release: 8 October 2019

Tyler (Khan) is a 14-year-old, the son of struggling single mother Toni (Madekwe), who falls under the spell of shifty drug dealer Simon (Dickinson). Poignant and informative social realist drama, laying bare an inhumane issue (Tyler’s absence of alternatives) in unflashy and compassionate style.