“A coming of age film, but ground down to the genre’s darkest essence”
“Do you know what an acceptable loss is?” a woman’s voice asks, it’s owner out of shot. Tyler’s (Conrad Khan) phone won’t stop beeping. He sits very still, a kind of unconvincing bravado lurking behind his eyes. “Do you know what the acceptable loss for your business is?” the voice asks again. Tyler doesn’t respond. “You”.
County Lines follows Tyler, a troubled teenager who tries to stay out of fights at school and looks after his sister Aliyah (Tabitha Milne-Price) whilst their mum Toni (Ashley Madekwe) spends her nights working as a cleaner. When she loses her job and the family are put under even more financial pressure, Tyler falls victim to drug dealer Simon’s (Harris Dickinson) charms, and becomes caught up in his dangerous and dehumanising operation.
When director Henry Blake introduced County Lines at Glasgow Film Festival, he called it a ‘diary entry’. Blake has been a youth worker in London for over a decade, and has seen countless stories (just like Tyler’s) of vulnerable young people being groomed to enter the county lines system of trafficking drugs. As such, the film feels like a beautifully shot public service announcement, acting as a harrowing alarm bell to what is the reality for many children and their families across the UK right now.
Despite only being his first feature film, Blake handles these characters with incredible care and compassion, whilst expertly crafting a vivid visual tone and sense of place. Tinged in melancholic blues and illuminated often by dingy artificial light, County Lines manages to feel like a distinctly ‘of our time’ depiction of urban Britain, even with the old-school, film-style grain clouding every shot. The production design is impeccable, especially in Tyler’s family home. The cramped layout allows for striking shots of both the living room and kitchen at once, and how the characters orbit around each other within those walls.
Relative newcomer Khan is remarkable, transforming himself from the troubled but caring brother we meet in the first half of the film, to the monstrous and violent ‘man of the house’ of the second, altered drastically by his drug trafficking experience. Ashley Madekwe is blisteringly authentic as a struggling mum stuck in the daily churn of making ends meet, no headspace left to truly connect with her children. The film is, at its core, about a mother and son relationship being tested, pushed to its limits and then rebalanced for the good of both of them.
Though this story is a hard watch at times, and full of people making consistently bad decisions, it’s hard to actually pick out a villain. Harris Dickinson’s Simon feels like the obvious antagonist. He’s a menace for sure, but though his treatment of Tyler and his family is truly horrifying at times, he also represents the saddening fact of history repeating itself. He is the catalyst for a lot of pain in Tyler’s life, but only because he experienced that same pain himself. The real enemy here is the system, and the structures that leave so many people like Tyler in high risk situations as they try to put food on the table.
County Lines is a coming of age film, but ground down to the genre’s darkest essence. Tyler’s loss of innocence is epitomised perfectly in one devastating shot of him getting into a car with Simon. Only metres away down the road is a floodlit football pitch, where just days before he had talked to his friend about starting to play again. As the car sets off, it literally carries Tyler away from where he should be in that moment – from the childhood he deserves.
Peppered with brutal acts of violence, scored by swelling, sorrowful strings, and full of stinging, raw performances, County Lines is an unflinching, unmissable debut from Henry Blake. It shows no fear in conveying the bleak reality of this story; it gets under your skin. It grabs hold of you when you’re tempted to look away and forces your gaze forward to witness the lives of people we often so easily ignore. Whatever Blake turns his hand to in the future, this stunning first film ensures he’ll have our full attention.
Director: Henry Blake
Writer: Henry Blake
Cast: Conrad Khan, Ashley Madekwe, Harris Dickinson
Producers: Zoe Bamber, Victoria Bavister, David Broder, Pia Getty, Christopher Granier-Deferre, Simona Hughes, Dylan Rees
Images courtesy of Two Birds Entertainment & Loupe Films.