In the UK, up to 10,000 children are involved in drug smuggling between cities and rural areas. 14-year-old Tyler (Conrad Khan) is a fictional representation of these children. County Lines charts his journey from troubled school child to hardened drug mule with an unflinching level of observation. Unafraid to depict the graphic violence common within this sinister world, director Henry Blake fully commits to a story that occasionally veers into the predictable but remains an important tale to be told.
Teenage life is difficult for everyone, but Tyler has more on his shoulders than the average schoolboy; his mother, Toni (Ashley Madekwe), struggles to make ends meet with an overnight cleaning job, and Tyler is often left with full responsibility for his younger sister Aliyah. School isn’t much better – bullied for his introverted nature, Tyler is often provoked into fighting the other boys in his class, which exacerbates an already stressful home environment. Through these circumstances, Blake quickly establishes Tyler’s vulnerability, favouring bluntness over a more subtle characterisation.
It isn’t long before this vulnerability is exploited by a local drug dealer (Harris Dickinson), who pushes Tyler to prove his masculinity by getting a job. With little other work available for a fourteen-year-old, and Toni newly unemployed, Tyler is drawn into the world of drug smuggling, an endeavour which offers him the independence, money and sense of purpose that he so desperately craves. From the beginning, Blake’s depiction of a horrific reality takes no prisoners – Tyler’s initiation into his new career involves a train ticket, a bag of crushed pills, and a tub of vaseline.
Violence quickly becomes part of Tyler’s day to day life, as he witnesses the brutality that goes hand in hand with an industry dependant on addiction. Despite the traumatic nature of his work, Tyler does not break down emotionally, as he is keen to prove himself as the ‘man of the household’. Instead, he becomes increasingly stoic, save for frequent outbursts of anger towards his beloved family. It’s an awful transformation to watch, but one which effectively delivers an important message: children just like Tyler are out there now, witnessing things they should never have to witness, and suffering in ways they should never have to suffer.
Though County Lines is sometimes overly straightforward, the film is nonetheless an effective take on an under-investigated phenomenon. Supported by deeply moving performances, Henry Blake’s debut feature is well worth seeking out, and a signal of his promising flair for social realist cinema.
Words by Meg Christopher