I’ll be honest. I didn’t know anything about the County Lines phenomena until I saw Henry Blake’s debut film of the same name. Talk about an unpleasant awakening. For any like me currently blissfully unaware, it’s basically a drug-running scheme, which sees young inner city kids being recruited to smuggle drugs out to the countryside travelling along local railway lines. When we first meet 14-year-old Tyler (played magnificently by Conrad Khan), he’s being interviewed. It’s unclear if he’s talking to someone who is a medical professional or perhaps in the police, but one thing is certain: he’s in some kind of trouble. Cut back to six months earlier and we see how he got there. And how much farther it will go. Tyler lives with his mum Toni (Ashley Madekwe) and sister in a small flat. He goes to school every day where he is regularly bullied. He looks after his young sister, but is left to himself by his overworked mother. All this changes when he meets Simon (Harris Dickinson), who stands up to the bullies and offers Tyler a potential ally.
But Blake’s film avoids the usual clichés of an innocent caught in the snares of criminality. Tyler’s choices are rational. With his mother losing her job, who else is going to provide the family with money? It’s his chance to be the ‘man of the house’. The sleaze and the banality of crime is portrayed rather than its glamour. And Tyler does have options. His teachers are understanding and do their best to help him. There’s a five aside football pitch at the bottom of his road, with mates who are literally begging him to come back and play with them.
If the problems are not simplistically linked to some cause and effect, the consequences are drawn in a brutal and realistic way. There are lessons to be drawn from the film, undoubtedly and its message is very clear. And yet what is most impressive by Henry Blake’s first film is how it avoids the heavy handed didacticism that his subject matter could have led him to. The world he creates of schoolyards, wet city streets and the sudden empty skies of the countryside is utterly convincing and makes the tragedy unfolding all the more troubling.