Henry Blake's debut feature film is a fiery and devastating look at grooming and its effects on both the children and parents affected. Packing a mighty punch, Blake shows considerable talent and passion, but the film also feels peculiarly cold at times. Inspired by real events and based on Blake's own short film from 2017, County Lines is as horrific as it is realistic.
Tyler (Conrad Khan) has a knack for getting in trouble at school for fighting. At home, he takes care of his little sister, while his mother Toni (Ashley Madekwe) works long hours at night, only coming home as the kids depart for their day. Tyler is soon groomed by a local “entrepreneur” Simon (a menacing Harris Dickinson) to smuggle and sell drugs and Tyler grows more and more infatuated with his new, reckless lifestyle while Toni starts to see the worrying change in her once-sweet son.
At first glance, County Lines appears a little ordinary and more than a little cliched. It utilises a very British, kitchen sink-realism approach to its script and as such, offers very few surprises, but Blake finds plenty of grace and beauty in the rather unsurprising narrative. The director also demonstrates a great deal of control in all areas of filmmaking, from the tone to the shot compositions, but it also renders County Lines a little cold. It lacks the explosiveness which it needs to sell the bigger emotional beats.
Khan is simply remarkable as the complex and vulnerable Tyler. He convincingly portrays a wide range of emotions, without ever tipping to hysteria or overacting. Tyler's arc is strong and his motivations are made clear, but never underlined or dumbed down. Dickinson, in a role that feels far too small for such a strong performance, is both sinister and convincing as someone able to easily groom young boys into the business with big promises, validation, and some cheap take out, a rare luxury for these kids. He preys on the most vulnerable, insecure targets and drafts them to do the dirty work for him.
Ultimately though, the film belongs to Ashley Madekwe, simply breathtaking as Tyler's desperate mother Toni. County Lines' biggest triumph is that it never documents just Tyler's journey but Toni's as well. There is no good or bad guys present here, just flawed human beings making mistakes and trying to survive, while all the odds seem stacked against them.
Blake's script never shies away from the traumatic and shocking, including one addict's heart-wrenching pleas for just one more hit and the subsequent attack on her. Blake is interested in giving us a jolt, showing us the ugly side of something happening right under our noses but going unseen, but Blake never actively tries to traumatise us. It's a tricky balance but pulled off with great detail and care.
County Lines is assured work from all involved, especially Blake and his principal cast. It's at times a little unimaginative and its reliance on the rather ordinary visual style becomes ultimately uninteresting, but County Lines marks the arrival of a majorly exciting new voice in British filmmaking.
Dir: Henry Blake
Scr: Henry Blake
Cast: Ashley Madekwe, Conrad Khan, Harris Dickinson
Prd: Victoria Bavister, David Broder
DOP: Sverre Sørdal
Music: James Pickering
Run time: 90 minutes
County Lines is released in cinemas and digitally on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema on 4 December.