This powerful and moving debut from writer-director Henry Blake punches above its weight and hits its target. Sometimes County Lines is a tough watch, but it is an important film – one that shines a light on the murky and terrifying world of child exploitation by criminal drugs gangs in the UK. Last year it was shown in the House of Lords; hopefully these educational screenings will spark positive change and help safeguard potential victims in the future.
The term ‘county lines’ refers to the phone numbers, or lines, used by gangs trafficking drugs away from big cities. The film opens with a buzzing mobile. It belongs to 14 year old Tyler (Conrad Khan) who, we learn, is in trouble: “Do you know what acceptable loss is for your business?” asks his counsellor. “You are! You’re the acceptable loss.”
Six months earlier: in a London school canteen the camera locates Tyler in the corner of the frame. He is quiet amidst the hubbub, on the margins of things, the victim of bullying. At home he looks after his younger sister while his mum (Ashley Madekwe) works as a cleaner. They are a loving family, but money is tight.
After a man in a chip shop saves him from being jumped by a gang from school, Tyler sees him the next day sitting in a parked car. Simon (Harris Dickinson) persuades him to skip school. He buys him new trainers and food. “What do you do?” Tyler asks him. “Self-employed,” he replies. As ‘the man’ of his own house Tyler thinks this sounds like a good idea: he will be able to provide for his family.
The reality of what follows is squalid and depressing, involving trips out of town to drug-dealing ‘trap-houses’, running errands for strangers, seeing things that no 14-year old should have to witness.
The gathering gloom is reinforced by the film’s palette: dingy interiors in which only the orange glow of lamps offer any cheer. Even daylight feels as if it has been turned down by a dimmer switch. When Tyler sits by the sea watching the sun go down it should be an uplifting and poetic moment of escape. But we know it’s only a brief respite from his awful situation.
County Lines is elevated by naturalistic performances from its leads. Both Conrad Khan and Ashley Madekwe have been nominated for BAFTA awards (Rising Star and Supporting Actress, respectively). Khan imbues Tyler with a kind of invisible charisma, one that enables him to seem vulnerable, yet cool under pressure. He looks like a cross between Rami Malek and Thomas Brodie-Sangster.
As a former youth worker in East London, writer-director Henry Blake drew on his own experiences to create the film. During a Q&A conducted by the Cambridge Film Festival Youth Lab, he explained: “I felt compelled to try to author a story which showed the damage and the stakes of what could happen when a family and a young person become ensnared in county lines criminal networks.”
A caption before the credits spells out the reality: “Up to 10,000 children as young as 11 are involved in county lines across the UK.” So what can be done about this?
“From a safeguarding perspective … it’s important not to ignore the context of their vulnerabilities, to try to identify those vulnerabilities in whatever form they take, whether they be socio-economic, ethnic, physical, psychological or educational … they need to be identified as early as possible in order to create a larger picture … in order to created a more holistic support system.”
Politically, “punitive measures are not working … you need a political groundswell to bring in a harm-reduction approach – quite simply, that you’re not arresting drug addicts, you’re going to set up clinics to help them. For a lot of people that’s a problem to hear. We live in very conservative times … we’re becoming even more conservative in our mindsets and I think that’s a great shame. For me, the goal of County Lines is to take the sting out of the tail. The sting is the violence. And violence comes from the need to control the street markets.”