A candid look at exploited, vulnerable lives

Joh Foster reviews film, County Lines.

The term ‘county lines’ refers to the trafficking of illegal drugs from one area to another, often across police and local authorities, usually by children or vulnerable people who are coerced into it by gangs. This eponymous film debut by director Henry Blake is a compelling look at the realities of Blake’s previous job as a youth worker based in East London. The film introduces brilliant and capable actor, Conrad Khan, as 14-year-old Tyler, a boy bullied at school and burdened with almost-sole responsibility of his younger sister while his mother (Ashley Madekwe) works as a night cleaner. 

Following his mother’s dismissal from her job, his domestic and school lives combust when he meets dealer, Simon, who befriends and then grooms Tyler, eventually recruiting him into his dubious line of business, the “acceptable loss” of which could well be him. The protagonist’s struggle with being the self-declared “man of the house” and needing to provide for his family leave him prey to the exploitation of Simon. Exposed for the first time to drugs and the violence associated with it – beatings, stabbings, and rape to name but a few – Tyler’s previously quiet character falls into a perpetual cycle of deceit and then debt. The story quickly transports the viewer to six months later, seeing Tyler depicted as a violent, unreasonable young man, and the final showdown with his increasingly concerned but helpless mother. 

A snapshot of the inner-city poverty experienced by too many families living in the UK, the 90-minute film portrays the ease of which the most vulnerable among us can fall foul of our base morals and ethics to essentially just survive. While the film is merely fictional, albeit based in the harsh reality of Blake’s 11 years in youth work, the actual figures around the practice of county lines and trafficking are startling. A recent City Hall report states that some 3,290 individuals were being used to move drugs out of the capital, though Blake suggests the real number is higher. 

Filmed on location in London and Canvey Island, the film is a brutal take on what is currently happening in our cities and is a stark reminder that while this is only a single story, there are many more happening every single day. The plot in this particular tale follows one of danger and despair but ultimately, of recovery and hope. How accurate the ending of this film is in respect of those living it in this very country remains to be seen, but the picture is a grey one that shows the grim reality of our children, their families, and the lengths they will go to, to live. Food for thought, indeed.

County Lines is available at https://www2.bfi.org.uk/whats-on/bfi-film-releases/county-lines

Reviewed by Joh Foster, Organisational Psychologist and Change Specialist; T: @TheWiseFoster

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