County Lines Review
County Lines is as much about isolation as it is about desperation. It’s one of a thousand similar stories about damaged people drawn into fault lines created by others and pushed along a similar path. Writer-director Henry Blake’s impressive and sobering debut displays an inherent understanding of how a cycle of hurt and missing identity can be corrupted at a young and vulnerable age.
Blake spent 11 years working as a youth worker (and continues his youth work today) dealing with countless traumatised children dragged into drug trafficking across county lines. The closing credits reveal that over 10,000 children are involved in the movement of illegal substances (sourced from the National Crime Agency) and he draws on first-hand experience to tell an unapologetically raw fictional story based on the truths he has heard.
The sense of isolation mentioned at the start of the review is apparent from the film’s opening, where we meet 14-year-old Tyler (an extremely impressive Conrad Kahn) in his school class and hear the taunts from fellow pupils nearby. Throughout the film Blake places him in the corner of the frame, leaving wide spaces around his profile to suggest the silent frustration permeating inside. While Tyler doesn’t fit in with his fellow classmates, at home he dutifully takes care of his younger sister Aliyah (charmingly played by Tabitha Milne-Price) while his mother, Toni (Ashley Madekwe) works a night job as a cleaner.
Toni clearly loves her kids, but raising them as a lone parent in a two bedroom council flat on a low income isn’t easy. The daily grind of life can disconnect people from each from each other even under the same roof and Toni is unaware of how her desperation to escape her routine affects Tyler and Aliyah. Tyler needs his own outlet and finds it in the shape of local drug dealer Simon (Harris Dickinson) who sees an opportunity to manipulate him for his own gain.
Part of what makes County Lines so accomplished is the humanity shown to all its characters and the way it understands the complexities of the choices they make. No judgement is passed on the people involved in Tyler’s universe, even going as far to offer slithers of empathy to those who may first appear to deserve little or none at all. When Tyler is sent to a coastal town to deliver crack to a drug dealer called Sadiq (Marcus Rutherford) he’s asked his age. When he mumbles he is only 14, you get a brief glimpse behind Sadiq’s hardened emotional barrier as he takes a momentary pause, Tyler’s response causing him to reflect on the experiences that have led him to this point in his life, sitting in a squalid flat prepping drug wraps.
It’s clear that Blake’s grounding in the real lives of kids like Tyler and many of the other characters seen in this world has enabled him to create such pitch perfect representation. There isn’t a step put out of place when it comes to the dialogue and dynamics of the relationships, that in many films are often over dramatic in their attempts to portray gritty realism. Nothing in the script feels like it has been written to ‘sell’ the story as the truth is often more horrific than watered down fictionalised versions.
Just as impressive is the full complement of strong performances Blake elicits from his cast. Kahn in particular does wonders with a script that doesn’t require him to say too much. Tyler’s struggle is largely psychological, a boy with behavioural problems unable to cope with his swirling emotions. Kahn belies his relative inexperience to transmit that inner battle with clarity and promises much for his future career. Similarly, Madekwe strikes a nerve as a mother still learning to mature, while Dickinson gives dimension to Simon to avoid 'bad guy' cliche.
As is often the case with films like this some may be tempted to label it as mere misery porn, accusing it of revelling in the despair and struggles of its characters. But to do so would be a huge disservice to County Lines and the topics being raised. It’s not often that a director who has spent so much of their life living and breathing the story is able to translate it into a fictionalised account so convincingly, his debut speaking to the thousands of kids that are chewed up and spat out by a wicked capitalist system that has oppressed them since birth.
County Lines opens in select UK cinemas and on BFI Player from December 4.