Henry Blake's debut feature combines raw realism and a knack for visual storytelling to lift the lid on child exploitation in the drug trade
Fourteen-year-old Tyler isn’t living in the real world. At school he is withdrawn – always staring out the window, or getting into fights. But it’s more than that. He is drifting through a version of London contorted by a haze of unreality. Corridors and classrooms swim around him in alien, submarine hues; his family home has a sickly, oppressive glow. He’s boxed in by doorframes and windows, cramped offices and flats; a young man trapped in the architecture of adolescence.
And then he meets Simon, a guardian angel who shows Tyler a different world: daylight, no school, new trainers and burgers on the house. But the free lunch comes at a cost. The next day Tyler receives a wrap of drugs, a tub of Vaseline and a train ticket. He hides them in a queasily familiar shoebox. It’s a striking moment, capturing in an instant the exploitation of the County Lines gangs.
There are several such flourishes in County Lines: a film that confidently blends unfussy naturalism with an eye for telling details and neat cinematic phrases. Its opening chapter, where quirks of character and chance bring Tyler into Simon’s orbit, is particularly impressive. And while this form isn't quite maintained as Tyler makes a too precipitous descent into an underclass of addicts, pushers and the trafficked, things rally in the final act.
Here, County Lines offers a mature reflection on the fallout of such grooming and makes this much clear: Tyler is a boy playing the part of a man. His illusion has been woven by an unscrupulous abuser. It cannot last.
Released 4 Dec by BFI in cinemas and on the BFI Player; certificate 15