14-year-old Tyler is the man of the house. His father is nowhere to be seen; his mother isn’t around much either. We see him cooking, cleaning and taking his younger sister to school as his mother returns home from her nightshift. Understandably, he appears tired and irritable in class. Often he gets into trouble.
This is a familiar enough situation throughout Britain. What is becoming commoner is the exploitation of these teenagers in ever-expanding drug networks. County Lines details the horrifying reality of this phenomenon. Tyler (Conrad Khan) is sucked in easily. After he is saved from a gang of youths by the older Simon (Harris Dickinson), Tyler starts to see him around more: parked outside the school gates; threatening a boy in an alley. Simon describes himself as an ‘“entrepreneur”’ and gives Tyler attention, gifts and protection. When Tyler’s mother Toni (Ashley Madekwe) loses her job, he goes to Simon, who puts him to work.
What follows is a worsening nightmare. Tyler is forced to traffic drugs from London to provincial towns. He goes from squalid bathrooms to dank flats to street corners and is pushed around by fearful drug dealers and addicts. It becomes harder for him to escape and after he is robbed by a rival gang, he becomes indebted to Simon. That was probably the plan all along; as one teacher tells him: “You are the acceptable loss in this business.”
County Lines is a cautionary tale of the most affecting kind. Tyler is caught in a web that pulls tighter and tighter. The feature opens with a ringing phone that never seems to stop. Doors slam with finality. Every character breathes audibly and eats loudly. It is a claustrophobic world. And terrifying too; the violence is brutal and believable in its carelessness. The characters are well-drawn and well-acted; each accent rings true and every glance carries weight. Tyler’s family are convincing in their fluctuating dependence and resentment.
This film succeeds in being hard to watch but easy to believe. How many young people live through this? The movie estimates around 10,000. County Lines makes something that seems very distant feel very close.
County Lines is released nationwide on 17th April 2020.
Watch the trailer for County Lines here: