Being a teenager is never easy. You struggle with your identity, feelings, doubts and school grades more than once. You want to be loved, liked, praised and looked up at. Whether it’s your friends adoring you every day or your parents telling you that they love you, you want it. But what happens if you don’t get that because of an unstable family life?
Well, then you look for that recognition in some other places, places that are too dark but for some unknown reason, they bring light into your life. Once you start combining that with booze and drugs, the darkness overtakes the light forever.
That’s precisely what County Lines from first-time writer/director Henry Blake is about. The fact that this movie is based on real-life events makes from this heart-breaking, eye-opening and beautifully shot movie an even more impactful one.
“Do you know what acceptable loss is”, “Do you know what it is in your business?”, “It’s you.”. Harsh words that no one should hear from a social worker and especially not when you’re a teenage boy struggling with life. Sadly, for Tyler (Conrad Khan), these are the words he hears during the opening minutes of “County Lines”.
You wonder if and why this shy young boy deserves those words. Well, director Blake takes you back to six months prior to that conversation. It’s again a school day, which means trouble and fights for Tyler. It seems that Tyler is really a magnet for violence.
However, when you take a closer look at him, you see that there’s a much softer side to him than you would think. Family life isn’t easy as his single mum Toni (Ashley Madekwe) has to work many shifts to make ends meets. Because of that, Tyler has to take care of his little sister. Dad isn’t in the picture, and that has an impact on Tyler and his family.
But one day, a ‘father figure’ steps up in the form of Simon (Harris Dickinson). After saving him from more trouble and stepping up for Tyler, Simon makes Tyler feel validated and loved. The men spend more time together, getting food, doing some shopping, and when Simon offers Tyler a job at his company, it seems that Tyler worries are about to come to an end.
As ‘an entrepreneur’, Simon is always looking for people to sell his merchandise and while Tyler is reluctant at first to take the job, he does it. But let us tell you, the merchandise he has to sell isn’t clothes or fake bags. No, it’s drugs. Because of this job, Tyler starts skipping school and ignoring his family duties, and it becomes even worse when drugs and brutality take over his life completely. Will this young, quiet and innocent boy get back on track or will the drugs damage his life irreversibly?
County Lines isn’t only the name of this gripping movie, but it’s also the term that describes the grooming of children to traffic drugs from cities to coastal and countryside towns. You might think that this doesn’t happen a lot in the UK, but hey right at the end of this movie, you will see some statistics about this practise that show you that it happens much more often. Therefore, it’s great that this underrepresented topic finally makes its way into the film industry.
While we already saw a glimpse of Khan in “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”, he now stunningly takes the lead. During the first part of the movie, he touches us with his sweet and understated performance that brings out the humane emotions. When his character comes in contact with drugs, his acting becomes much more brutal, upbeat and even more emotional.
The motherly love is being brought to this movie by Madekwe (“The Morning After Thrill”). Because of the incredibly moving performance we got to know that, despite Toni’s turbulent history, she wants to do everything she can to give her family a better future. Even when Tyler is losing the grip of reality, she’s there for him, with the hallway scene as one of the most touching scenes of this movie.
When seeing Simon for the first time, you know that he will be nothing but trouble thanks to Dickinson’s (“Matthias & Maxime”) great acting. Despite hiring Tyler to work for him, there are only a handful scenes between Tyler and Simon, but when they’re put together on the screen, both Khan and Dickinson bring their A-game.
When bringing a real-life story like this to the screen, you need to have more than just stunning performances. You have to have equally touching cinematography and score, and that’s precisely what Blake got.
Cinematographer Sverre Sørdal brings more realness and emotions to this movie with his noir-style cinematography and thanks to James Pickering’s score, the film becomes packed with painful emotions. Both men make their full-length feature debut with this movie and what a debut it is!
Blake came across the county lines practices when he was a youth worker working with children in similar situations as Tyler. The authentic script that came from that, the raw emotions, the astonishing performances and the dim cinematography make from “County Lines” an outstanding and crucial film.
County Lines is released in cinemas and digitally on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema on 4 December.