The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema/VOD] - COUNTY LINES | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema/VOD] - COUNTY LINES

county lines review
A teenage boy is recruited as a drug runner by a predatory dealer.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Henry Blake

Starring: Conrad Khan, Harris Dickinson, Ashley Madekwe, Marcus Rutherford

county lines poster

The title of writer/director Henry Blake's feature debut, County Lines, refers to the criminal practice that sees drug dealers recruit vulnerable teenagers to act as drug mules, transporting narcotics from British cities for distribution in rural areas. As a closing card tells us, it's estimated that as many as 10,000 children are involved in the trade in the UK. Blake brings frontline experience to his debut, having spent a decade working with such victims in his role as a social worker. Everything presented in his fictional story is based on factual episodes, which makes it all the more grim.

14-year-old Tyler (Conrad Khan) is exactly the sort of youth predatory dealers are on the lookout for. He's bullied at school and is shy and withdrawn, desperate for a friend. With his mother, Toni (Ashley Madekwe), working nights as a cleaner and no father around, he's free to carry out nocturnal work without adult interrogation. But most importantly, he looks like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, not the sort of kid that would instantly draw the attention of the law.

county lines review

When Toni is fired from her job for sleeping in one of the beds she's supposed to be turning down, Tyler decides he needs to step up as the "man of the house" and start bringing home some bacon. This sees him walk into the trap set by Simon (Harris Dickinson), the local drug dealer who has been grooming him for just such an event, having initially stepped in when Tyler was being picked on by schoolmates in a takeaway. Immediately, Tyler is on a train to a nondescript coastal town with a bag of heroin concealed in an uncomfortable part of his person.

County Lines is an unflinching look at the downward spiral such kids find themselves on when they enter this life. We watch as the fresh-faced Tyler becomes a monster, his new job hardening his soul to the point where he even enacts physical violence against his own mother. He too becomes the victim of violence when rival dealers object to him working on their patch. Blake refuses to sugarcoat any of this, and it certainly doesn't sell the glamour of the "gangsta" life. As a classroom tool, County Lines may prove invaluable.

county lines review

As a piece of narrative drama, however, it just doesn't have enough meat on its bones. The movie is such an objective look at the trajectory of Tyler that it falls more into the category of case study rather than character study. Just as Tyler begins his new life as a hardman, Blake cuts to six months down the road, when Tyler has now become a dead-eyed sociopath. It feels like something of a cheat to brush past so much character development, and it also avoids us having to witness any atrocities Tyler may have committed to get to that point, which might scupper the film's intent of making us empathise with him. At one point we see a boy who appears even younger than Tyler brutally attack him, but we never see Tyler carry out any similar acts. We're also asked to accept that Toni has been happily taking blood money from her son for six months without question, which doesn't gel with the warm-hearted mother she's otherwise portrayed as.

With its cold detachment, County Lines inevitably offers a simplistic and dated "drugs are bad" message. It never broaches the idea that these children fall into this life because of the UK's draconian, head-in-the-sand laws around drug use (the issue of legalisation is so mainstream now that even a conservative icon like Clint Eastwood can make a movie arguing in its favour). Equally dated is its implication that children need a father figure to keep them on the right side of the tracks. There's an element of classism here too, as Blake portrays this as a world confined to the working classes - we never see Tyler sell drugs to any middle class professionals, which is where the real money in the drugs trade comes from.

county lines review

It feels petty to make such complaints about a movie that is so well-intentioned, and while Blake's perspective may skew a little too far to that of an authority figure passing judgment on this world, his heart is certainly in the right place. And he certainly knows how to put together impactful imagery that gets under your skin. In Khan he has unearthed a young actor of real talent, one who can speak volumes with as small a gesture as a cold stare.

County Lines may well deter youngsters from following Tyler's path, and if so, Blake's work will be done. But simply critiquing the street level drug dealer without examining the wider context that puts kids in such danger is a little like giving a starving man a fish rather than teaching him how to fish for himself.

County Lines
 is in UK/ROI cinemas and on VOD from December 4th.

2020 movie reviews