Based on the ‘county lines’ crisis whereby gangs use children to smuggle drugs from large cities to smaller towns, writer-director Henry Blake’s feature debut is a harsh, bleak and moving slice of social realism.
Based on Blake’s short of the same name, County Lines follows the travails of 14-year-old Tyler (a phenomenal Conrad Khan), drawn in and exploited by the serpent-like Simon (Harris Dickinson) into becoming a drug mule, ferrying product from London to an unnamed seaside town on the south coast. As he is gradually seduced, the problems Tyler faces at home and at his Pupil Referral Unit are exacerbated.
Blake’s choice to open the film on PRU mentor Bex (Carlyss Peer) explaining to Tyler that he is the ‘acceptable loss’ in the gang’s business model is an interesting one, setting up a tragic inevitability to the subsequent ‘six months ago’ flashback that forms most of the film’s first half. As we look on at Tyler’s passive face, defiantly staring at his phone, we’re made to wait to find out whether or not Bex’s words are falling on deaf ears.
Cinematographer Sverre Sørdal frequently keeps his camera locked down, surveilling characters in wide shots and dividing interiors into uncomfortably severed spaces obscured in shadow and grubby, mean surfaces. Meanwhile, James Pickering’s score and the film’s sound design work to create a sparse, largely diegetic soundscape; sheets of silence shattered by eruptions of violence.
At the film’s halfway point, we replay the first scene, this time as the camera fixes on Bex, humanising the disembodied institutional voice just at the point in the narrative when the consequences of Tyler’s path are about to become extremely embodied indeed.
Aside from the obvious narrative and dramatic impact of the replayed scene, the way that Blake taking a device as routine and dull as shot-reverse-shot and transforms it into riveting reveals something crucial about his filmmaking in the that way he captures and crafts the tragic in the banal.
Indeed, part of the tragedy of County Lines is in the way the film feels like a case study of mundane poverty, that this story is being repeated across London and in every major city in the country. The pain is not in its uniqueness, but in its crushing and avoidable familiarity.
Performances across the board are top drawer. Khan finds Tyler’s delicacy and vulnerability somewhere among his downward glances, tearful scowls and frantic, shocking moments of violence. But it’s perhaps his mother, Toni (a devastating Ashley Madekwe) who is the real heart of the film – marginalised in some respects as the narrative focuses itself on Tyler – struggling to keep her family together while battling with the demons of her own past. That sense of the past, too, is understated but important, evoking both intergenerational community and the endemic social problems that define so much of the cultural fabric of urban and suburban life.