4th December 2020 (UK VOD Premiere)
Inspired by true events, County Lines is the highly acclaimed and hugely topical feature from writer and director Henry Blake. The film is a vivid and moving coming-of-age film about a struggling mum (Ashley Madekwe) and her 14-year-old son Tyler (Conrad Khan) who is groomed and recruited by Simon (Harris Dickinson) into a lethal drug-selling network – a ‘county line’ that exploits vulnerable children and puts them to work nationwide.
Harris Dickinson, Ashley Madekwe, Marcus Rutherford
The NPCC defines a County Line as a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move, and store, the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence and weapons.
According to a sobering statistic in Henry Blake’s County Lines, up to 10,000 children as young as 11 are used in this way in the UK. His film is the fictional but no less authentic account of one such child.
It follows Tyler (Conrad Khan; The Huntsman: Winters War), a troubled 14-Year-Old living in London. He’s incredibly distant at school, withdrawn from others. The only time he speaks is to offend others or cause trouble – a trait which ultimately gets him expelled. His mother Toni (Ashley Madekwe; How To Lose Friends & Alienate People) is mostly absent, either working nights as a hotel cleaner or out drinking which ends up with a new man back at their home. As a result, Tyler is forced to care for his younger sister Aliyah (Tabitha Milne-Price).
After yet another incident in which Tyler is on the receiving end of abuse, he’s saved by the instantly intimidating Simon (Harris Dickinson; Beach Rats) who steps in to abruptly end the attack. Eventually, Tyler is taken under Simon’s wing – but the price to pay for the supposed friendship will sink Tyler to unthinkable depths.
County Lines paints an unshakeably bleak portrait of growing up in working class Britain. It argues that the problem isn’t as simple as someone simply ‘choosing’ to be a drugs runner. The dilemma runs deeper, right down the family tree. It highlights an overcrowded education system whose intentions are admirable but one that is poorly equipped to deal with the rising issue of gangs.
Baby-faced Conrad Khan, who is in reality a 20-year-old but easily passes as the pubescent 14, is astounding as the impressionable Tyler. It’s even more incredible that this is his first major lead role and he pulls it off perfectly. Whether he’s portraying the absent minded version of the character when in school, or the volatile ‘tough’ Tyler, Khan delivers superbly – and always with the frightened innocence of a young teen who’s way over their head behind the façade.
Immensely strong support – at least, performance wise – comes from Ashley Madekwe as his struggling mother, Toni. It’s clear she is just as directionless as her son, with one scene recalling a time when she was ‘a liability’. She evidently wants to help Tyler, but as a single mum in a tiny flat and unable to hold down a job of her own, she’s never had any guidance of her own to pass onto her children as advice.
Harris Dickinson is suitably slimy as the cocksure drug dealer Simon. To begin with, he says exactly what Tyler wants to hear, essentially grooming him with gifts and dine-in food. And that’s a part of the problem – for kids who have nothing, it does not take much to sway them into this criminal lifestyle. To them, all they see is a successful figure flashing the cash, driving around in expensive cars. It’s a way of life they want, but the reality is far from the dream. Especially when taking this route.
One of my favourite shots of the film highlights this perfectly. When entering a train station after an especially pivotal (and downright horrific) sequence of events, to the right of the station doors is an ATM. Brightly illuminated are the words “Free Cash”. Of course, we know this to mean no charges for withdrawals, but I felt it had a much deeper meaning here.
And that’s another thing about County Lines. For its relentlessly downbeat tone, it still manages to find beauty in the negative spaces. There are countless striking visuals or manifested metaphors. Another great example is the 5-A-Side football field, its metal fence and what it represents.
Admittedly, I felt it does wrap up a little too neatly. On the surface anyway. It’s understandable though, because for over an hour we’re steeped in misery. I suppose that’s the point. There’s no ‘happy’ endings for the majority of the 10,000 kids (just typing that astronomical number again makes my heart sink and it’s only just recovered from watching this) whose reality is this fictional account. But any who see this and are dipping their toes in the dangerous waters may realise it’s not too late to turn back.
I firmly believe County Lines should be mandatory viewing for Secondary School pupils. It’s uncompromising, difficult to watch and absolutely essential viewing for young to mid-teenagers. Heck, even have the school put it on for parents. It’s vital for everyone to see this film.
County Lines is released in cinemas and digitally on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema on 4 December.
If you have any concerns about someone you know being involved in County Lines dealing, visit the National Crime Agency page for contact details and more information.
Phenomenal performance by Conrad Khan
Unflinching in its portrayal of County Line crimes
Visually striking through the negativity
Slightly fairy-tale ending
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