It’s hard during tense sociopolitical times to not only focus on the negatives. It’s hard to not get into a rabbit hole of everything bad in the world. But sometimes, the injustices laid upon people who need help the most hit you in the face with such power it’s unavoidable. London filmmaker Henry Blake’s debut feature film County Lines is that jab to the nose – an exploration of how criminal organisations and gangs exploit vulnerable children by sending them across the country to sell drugs.
It’s a dark-yet-powerful reality that’s a growing concern in England and especially London, where The Children’s Commissioner estimates over 4,000 teenagers are being put in danger through this form of grooming and criminal exploitation. For County Lines Blake delved into his own experience as a youth worker over a decade ago to tell the story of 14-year-old Tyler Hughes (Conrad Khan) and how, after his mother (Ashley Madekwe) loses her job, he is coerced by local hard-nut Simon (Harris Dickinson) into making quick money by travelling to the seaside to move drugs unsuspiciously. Fans of Top Boy will be familiar with this narrative – young boy finds himself shouldering the responsibility of providing for his family and only sees the rewards and not the huge risks that come with such involvement.
The story opens in medias res, present-day, with Tyler in a counselling session being pressed on whether he understands the phrase “acceptable loss”. Soon after, we jump back six months to explain how things came to be. Conrad Khan is captivating as Tyler, able to traverse between the venomous stare of a misbehaving, angsty teenager to raw pain and emotion in the darker scenes. Blake paints him as an easy target for these gangs: at school, he’s getting into fights regularly without any worry of consequences and is often picked on by the bigger kids. For him, working with older, more-fearful gang members gives him a sense of safety and security that he can’t access elsewhere. What plays out, though, is the harsh truth of being involved in “county lines” and the domino effect it has, not just on the teenager involved, but the lives of the people around them.
There’s a grittiness to the cinematography that reflects the struggle depicted throughout. The colours are drained with no saturation and there’s a haziness to scenes that add to the feeling of unpleasantness and imminent danger. From the limited cast, we’re not given much detail into the backstory of most characters, but arguably Blake wasn’t focused on painting a stereotypical picture of the environment in which a child can become vulnerable. Instead, keen to show that this could happen to anyone, regardless of the situation. Without spoilers, there’s a nod to this in one of the very last shots – a grimacing moment that shows just how prevalent this is.
County Lines is a bold, powerful and eye-opening film in a time when gang violence and criminal exploitation is on the rise. It’s a poignant reminder too of the important responsibility we all have in providing the best support possible for those most susceptible to being exploited.
County Lines premiered on 8th October at London Film Festival.