County Lines is the debut feature film from Henry Blake, inspired by his own experiences as a youth worker. It follows Tyler, a 14-year old who becomes involved in County Lines, a nationwide drug dealing network which exploits vulnerable children into trafficking drugs from urban areas to rural or coastal locations.
It’s a sensitive topic that Blake handles with extreme care, managing to not sanitise the real tragedy of these experiences but also never allowing the film to tread into melodramatic territory. The opening scenes of Tyler and his mum’s experiences within his school (a pupil referral unit from children excluded from mainstream school) are painfully realistic and the tone only continues. Blake is able to highlight the ease with which these children can be groomed, and how quickly the situations can spiral out of control.
Conrad Khan is outstanding in the lead role; he is able to carry the whole movie with his portrayal as good as any other I’ve seen this year. Able to switch almost instantly between fragile child and angry teen he embodies the trauma of both his age and the extraordinary experiences he is living through – as well as the tragically ordinary. His relationship with his younger sister is lovely and shows not only the compassionate young man Tyler is but also the burden of responsibility that has been placed on him at far too young an age. His mother Toni, played by Ashley Madekwe, is hard not to judge at times, but Madekwe gives such a balanced portrayal that we are still able to empathise with her as things get out of hand.
It’s a powerful story and Blake his done wonderful job of making a powerful film. His personal experiences of working with teenagers like Tyler provide real human elements to the story and make it clear that this is not a story of judgement on any side. Through beautiful cinematography that feels like a series of portraits, compelling acting and a moving score, it’s easy to be caught up in Tyler’s story, but also important to remember that this is not fiction for thousands of children in the UK.
I recommend reading some of the wonderful articles from director Blake and star Khan about their experiences with both the film and the subject matter after watching the film.
County Lines is a tough but rewarding watch that will hopefully bring more awareness to an all too real experience.
County Lines is released in cinemas and digitally on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema on 4 December.
County lines criminal networks have increasingly been in the news over the last two years as the recruitment of children has grown at a worryingly fast rate.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates that up to 10,000 children in the UK are now exploited by or forced to work for drugs gangs and that there are now more than 2,000 individual deal line numbers in operation. Police forces, the government, charities and academia are working to combat and disrupt the threat, which can have traumatic and long-lasting consequences for those exploited and their families.
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