Finally getting a release after its original April bow was postponed, here’s our review of the superb County Lines.

County lines: a phrase that’s entered the language in recent years, describing the network of children used to traffic drugs from cities to the coast and countryside. But the words do nothing to convey that the lines are actually people, and how what they do takes a toll on them and their families. The debut feature from Henry Blake, and based on his own short of the same name, County Lines puts that right. That it’s based on his experience of working with young people in a Pupil Referral Unit comes as no surprise.

The film reeks of authenticity, telling the story of 14-year-old Tyler (Conrad Khan), a withdrawn teenager whose mother struggles to keep her family afloat. With problems at school and money pressures piling up, Tyler becomes a train-bound drugs courier for Simon (Harris Dickinson), the local kingpin with a lifestyle the boy craves. It takes him into another world, one of deceit, exploitation and violence.

Blake takes a direct approach in telling Tyler’s personal tragedy and, by default, that of the thousands we never see. He’s just one in a chain – one or two more slip in and out of the story but, like him, they’re the tip of the iceberg. Little is left to our imagination, from addiction to the brutal violence meted out to anybody muscling in on a dealer’s patch and the threats inflicted on the families of those owing money. It’s a vicious, sometimes deadly, cycle, presented in the gloom of half lit interiors, dark grey clouds and bleak night time, frequently viewed through windows to muffle the dialogue. We hear and see what we need to know and no more, a lean approach which heightens the film’s shattering impact.

Presiding over it all is the Fagin-like Simon. Casting a long and lethal shadow, despite just a handful of scenes, he casually and chillingly exploits his dealers and their addicts “because it’s easy”. It’s a superb performance by Harris Dickinson, calm to the point of cold blooded and without a twinge of conscience. Conrad Khan in his breakout role is equally impressive: his impassive face thinly disguises his inner turmoil and, underneath, he’s still a little boy.

In shedding a dour light on an under-reported problem, County Lines doesn’t set out to offer any solutions. It’s far from an easy watch, but it’s worth every minute and every ounce of effort.

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