County Lines – A vivid, urgent and timely exploration of social exclusion, coercion and control

County Lines is released nationwide on 4th December in cinemas and on-demand via BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema.

County Lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas [within the UK], using dedicated mobile phone lines or another form of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move [and store] the drugs and money, and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons. – The National Crime Agency

The best social drama comes from a deep understanding of the issues portrayed. Something debut feature director Henry Blake fully understands as he brings years of youth work experience to the screen. His remarkable, powerful and profoundly unsettling exploration of young people drawn into drug trafficking, both vivid, urgent and timely. In a year that has seen many families hit rock bottom in their income, ability to work and support the children in their care. The need for instant, apparently ‘easy’ income never more enticing for some of our most vulnerable kids. And it’s here where the complexity of Blakes film is at its most potent. The interface between poverty, exclusion and grooming never more vivid than in the on-screen journey of 14-year-old Tyler.

Tyler (Conrad Khan) has never quite fit in, his school life a barrage of taunts and bullying, his home life a struggle to keep his head above water. His mum, Toni (Ashley Madekwe), working nights as a cleaner to put food on the table. While at the same time, Tyler cares for his younger sister; taking her to school and picking her up at the end of the day. His young life caught in a void of caring responsibilities, poverty and a growing need for independence. However, when Tyler is rescued from a group of school bullies by the enigmatic Simon (Harris Dickinson), he feels he may have found a friend. Someone who understands his life, confusion and anger. While at the same time offering him valuable protection from harm.

However, it’s not long before Simon entices Tyler into an intricate web of crime, with a promise of ‘easy’ cash. His gentle yet commanding control playing on Tyler’s desire to support his family as ‘the man of the house’; leading Tyler to take his first tentative steps into the dark world of county lines drug dealing. The fear of Tyler’s first delivery replaced by the sudden income he receives; his character slowly changing as he becomes secretive, distant and aggressive. Meanwhile, as events spiral out of control, Tyler’s mum tries to avoid possible state involvement while also fearing the changes in her son’s behaviour. But, as Tyler’s confidence finds itself replaced by fear, violence and the realities of his role. The whole family become caught in a web of violence and extortion.

Blake draws on the realism of Ken Loach and Andrey Zvyagintsev in allowing his actor’s space to define their characters. With young Conrad Khan a revelation as Tyler. His performance rich in the anger, despair and need for belonging every teen faces. While at the same time, reflecting the painful truth of poverty and segregation in modern-day Britain. And while some critics have pointed to a lack of time in fleshing out the story. This very premise misses the point of Blakes film, as he demonstrates just how short and sharp the descent into a darker world can be, for vulnerable young people.

In fact, anyone who has worked with young people who sit on the fringes of society will recognise the story Blake brings to the screen. Its raw honesty and realism, reflecting the inner-city battles many families endure to survive. While at the same time, demonstrating the need for older brothers and sisters to ‘step up’ and become carers in achieving family stability. The realities of a breadline existence in a country of abject wealth both haunting, stark, but real in construct. In a society where many schools struggle to keep young people actively involved due to the pressures of home life. And youth workers find their skills cut from state services in favour of a more prescribed social service response.

The result of which leads to dozens of young people falling through the net of social support. In turn, allowing young adults who also slipped through the net to become dangerous role models. However, despite this, society displays mixed messages on protection. The state’s response ingrained in child protection, while also freely convicting children as young as ten. With societies perspective on youth crime dominated by a need to punish rather than understand the root causes of criminal activity.

County Lines does not provide us with any simple answers to social policy and practice in relation to youth crime and coercion. The journey of young Tyler a mere snapshot of a much larger and complex problem. But, it does ask us to reflect on a social norm that allows young people to become drawn into crime to survive. The social injustice and poverty many families face only deepened in recent years as austerity hit the poorest hardest. While at the same time, support structures were replaced by an ideology of informal volunteering over professional support.

Of course, many will argue that the full legalisation of drugs provides an answer to Tyler’s horrendous journey. However, this is not only naive but simplistic. After all, whether drugs are legal or illegal, those seeking to control young people of limited opportunity will continue to thrive. The emphasis of their control simply shifting to new areas of criminal activity or coercion.

Therefore, the answer surely lies within the social conditions we allow, in a society where the gap between rich and poor is ever increasing; the UK’s aspirational belief in all young people reaching their potential, blocked by the silent acceptance of poverty of opportunity. And in generating these meaningful discussions County Lines becomes a defining social drama of our modern age. A film that should not only be watched by kids and parents together, but discussed and debated in exploring meaningful social change.

Director: Henry Blake

Cast: Conrad Khan, Harris DickinsonAshley MadekweMarcus Rutherford, Carlyss Peer

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