County Lines (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Henry Blake, UK, 2019, 90 mins

Cast:  Conrad Khan, Ashley Madekwe, Harris Dickinson

Review by Carol Allen

As you may well know from stories in the press, the title refers to nationwide drug dealing networks, which persuade and coerce children into trafficking drugs from the cities to country and coastal areas.

It is a first feature from writer/director Henry Blake, who draws on his experience of working in a pupil referral unit with disturbed young people, who have been excluded from school, which is where he encountered children who had been drawn into this situation.

At the centre of the story is 14 year old Tyler (Conrad Khan), who lives with his single mother Toni (Ashley Madekwe).  Tyler is a pupil at one such unit, which in an early scene in the canteen has the air of a young offenders’ institution.  Despite the efforts of one of the youth workers to support him over a bullying incident with another boy, Tyler feels frustrated and rejected.  So he is an easy catch for Simon (Harris Dickinson), who buys the boy’s friendship and loyalty with burgers and other gifts.  Simon is of course a recruiter, who grooms Tyler for the county lines network of the title.

Conrad Khan, who is on screen for almost the entire film, gives a very assured and convincing performance as Tyler.  He is particularly good at conveying what’s going on inside the head of his character without overtly showing us.   He is also very good looking – has something of the young Leonardo DiCaprio about him.  All of which promises well for his future career.

The first part of the film with its depiction of Tyler’s life at school, at home with his mother and his affection for his younger sister is all very well done and convincing in its detail.  Definitely depressing though. They seem to live entirely on junk food.  Ashley Madekwe, despite looking young enough to be Tyler’s elder sister, is also good, as is the rather underused Dickinson

When we get onto the actual business of the title however. this is handled in a somewhat confusing way.   The film is not really explicit in telling us what Simon is up to and it doesn’t show us what Tyler is being asked to do, in that we don’t actually see him selling drugs to other children.  We do though realise he is getting involved with something nasty, when he and we meet his scary drug dealer, who beats up his junkie girlfriend in a rundown house, which features the most appallingly filthy toilet imaginable. 

It is also a long time before we discover the reason Tyler is doing this, which is to make money, because his mum has lost her job.   As someone who doesn’t know much about drug dealing and particularly county lines, I could have done with more clarity in the telling. 

However the film is well worth seeing for the really good performances and particularly for Conrad Khan, who could well be a future star in the making.

COUNTY LINES is released in UK & Irish cinemas from 4th December, when the film is also available on BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema & IFI @ Home