Sullenly adrift between an unhappy childhood and an adult future that promises little, an introverted 14-year-old boy is lured all too easily into the world of county lines drug trafficking: a practice that sees vulnerable youths recruited by gangs to ferry drugs from cities to rural areas, with no protection on the other side. If the premise of Henry Blake’s taut, claustrophobic debut feature seems familiar, that’s because it’s built on ugly, unavoidable reality. Narratively, “County Lines” could have been ripped from any number of recent headlines anxiously tracking a growing social problem across Britain, but its tangible dead-end atmosphere, sharp sense of local geography and quietly expressive performances keep it from feeling like a teacherly PSA — and distinguish it from various glossier teen-terror dramas across the Atlantic.
Unveiled to a warm reception at last year’s London Film Festival — and recently screened in the Cannes digital market — “County Lines” was scheduled to hit U.K. cinema screens in April, before the coronavirus pandemic forced an indefinite delay. That its British Film Institute distributors have opted against a digital release in the interim speaks to the topical film’s community-engaging possibilities in a theatrical setting, where Q&As and discussion groups can expand on the upsetting realities raised in its compact 90 minutes. International distribution possibilities beyond home turf, where the film’s very title isn’t an immediately evocative talking point, are less certain, though the vivid presence of rising star Harris Dickinson (“Beach Rats,” the upcoming “The King’s Man”) in a pivotal supporting role could boost its visibility abroad.
Dickinson and Ashley Madekwe (from TV’s “Revenge” and “Tell Me a Story”) are the name attractions in a contained ensemble; both cede the spotlight, however, to young lead Conrad Khan, who delivers a breakout performance of unnerving stillness and tightly coiled anguish. 18 at the time of filming, he convincingly plays younger as Tyler, a taciturn social outcast in the pupil referral unit — an alternative education system for children unable to enrol in regular schooling — he sporadically attends in working-class east London. Belittled and bullied in class, he’s the man of the house at home, effectively parenting his young sister Aliyah (Tabitha Milne-Price) while his single mother Toni (Madekwe) works menial night shifts and sleeps off the days.
Blake’s economical, eyes-ahead script doesn’t dwell on the personal history that took Tyler out of school. It’s clear enough that he’s had a rough time of it, with limited support from the authorities and the loving but over-burdened Toni. Rudderless, isolated kids like Tyler are easy prey for dealers seeking county lines runners, who are often targeted out of pupil referral units. Blake, who spent some time working in a PRU before turning to filmmaking, plainly knows his terrain here, shading his characters with enough grays to match Sverre Sørdal’s handsomely overcast lensing. When Tyler is defended from bullies one evening by imposing “entrepreneur” Simon (Dickinson), viewers will sense the grooming machine in motion well before the teen, awed by the older lad’s big-brother posing and a gift of designer sneakers, realizes what he’s getting into.
But Simon isn’t a drably one-note villain either: Electrifying in his limited screen time, Dickinson subtly mirrors Tyler’s sloping body language and terse, congested speech to suggest how he, too, may once have been in the boy’s uncomfortable skin, cyclically recruited in the same predatory way. A crisp jump to six months later, meanwhile, shows how fast the process can be. Fully immersed in grimy drug-mule duty — starkly illustrated with a couple of brief, horrifying scenes from a regional dealer’s den — a hardened Tyler has gone from withdrawn to stone-blank, a transition that Khan navigates with powerful restraint. Only in a handful of social-worker exchanges does “County Lines” feel a tad too written, though the performances never waver: Between the film’s portraits of hemmed-in masculinity, Madekwe offers a moving, fretful study of imperfect motherhood that is far more easily punished than assisted.
This is brute social realism with a thriller’s ticking clock: The tension is not over what will happen but when, and how fatal the fallout will be. Abetted by Paco Sweetman’s clean, calm editing, Blake demonstrates impressive control and consistency of tone. There are stylized flourishes in the film’s dim, shadow-painted palette — with occasional flares of red neon cutting through the storm-blue filters — and James Pickering’s nervous, string-heavy score, but they don’t come at any cost to the film’s burned-in sense of place and society.