BIFF20 REVIEW: County Lines [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 90 minutes
    Release Date: 2020 (UK)
    Studio: BFI Distribution
    Director(s): Henry Blake
    Writer(s): Henry Blake

You’re the acceptable loss.

Recruiting into the drug trade isn’t difficult when impoverished youth from broken homes are desperate to find purpose and escape. With school and family often devoid of the resources to properly engage or distract, a little flash of money or a seemingly sympathetic shoulder go a long way. Prove that you’re their champion and savior and they’ll do anything in return. Look no further than fourteen-year-old Tyler (Conrad Khan) after constantly getting in trouble for fighting back against bullies. If the school punishes him despite being the victim and his mother (Ashley Madekwe‘s Toni) barely has time to sleep while working night shifts let alone show face with the principal, why wouldn’t he gravitate towards a man (Harris Dickinson‘s Simon) who willingly stands up to protect him instead?

That’s all it takes: an involuntary quid pro quo set-up by a predator in order to entrapment his/her prey into believing enlistment was their idea. Writer/director Henry Blake is keenly aware of this ruse and ensures his feature debut County Lines exposes the complexity behind every aspect of what Tyler running drugs across London means for those involved. Because it’s not solely about this teen risking his life in a world he barely understands. It’s also about Simon delegating dangerous work to impressionable, underage children while he has dinner with his family. It’s about Toni allowing her son to do it wittingly by never asking questions when the salary he brings in proves their only means of survival. But blind eyes can only stay closed for so long.

What happens when things inevitably go sideways? Simon surely has other recruits to take Tyler’s place, but what of the lost profits when that proves necessary? And when Toni’s intentional avoidance of the subject goes long enough for Tyler to become violently emboldened by his newfound power within their familial dynamic, what can she feasibly do to stop him? It’s not like there isn’t a support system in place either. Toni wants her son to talk to her, but there’s only so many minutes of each day when they’re face-to-face and it’s never the time to engage in such heavy emotional lifting. Laurence (Anthony Adjekum) in the school’s administration is willing to take initiative and counsel him, but one-on-one time is largely a fallacy amongst hundreds of students.

So Tyler takes the plunge. School is volatile and pointless when compared to the dire straits of a single parent household that just lost its means of financial support. Yes, he gets into Simon’s car for his own reasons, but there’s the reality that doing so is for his mother and little sister (Tabitha Milne-Price‘s Aliyah) too. His new boss exploits this. Simon caters to Tyler’s inability to stand-up for himself and desperation to protect loved ones. Simon knows the stuff Tyler will ultimately experience under Sadiq’s (Marcus Rutherford) wing amongst junkies and rival gangs will irrevocably change him. He knows Tyler will harden to the point where “saving” his family leads him to abusing them too. And he doesn’t care as long as the count is correct.

You might believe Blake’s depiction of this life will be an exception that proves the rule considering he starts things off with Tyler sitting opposite a social worker (Carlyss Peer‘s Bex) talking him down from the life he’s chosen, but this conversation is just one of many outs the boy decides to ignore during the six-month lead-up to a reckoning of extreme proportions. That doesn’t mean Blake won’t still allow for a happy-ish resolution to conclude things, but the journey to such a possibility will be filled with threats, physical harm, and blood. And it should. As the statistic before the end credits states: as many as ten thousand kids as young as eleven are working as “county line” drug traffickers. Not everyone gets to return home alive.

Just because things are going good doesn’t negate the fact that it only takes an instant for everything to fall apart. So many murders in this life are a result of turf wars and double-crosses—that’s why men like Simon insulate themselves with expendable and interchangeable foot soldiers in the first place. It’s why they make certain they know where their employees’ families live too for a bit of extra collateral. The question then becomes whether or not Toni will have the courage to pull her son out even if it means going into more debt than they would have endured had he never gotten involved. No matter how many steps forward Tyler takes their financial security, his looming fate will always include more steps back.

Blake therefore bolsters this tale by spending time with both Tyler and Toni. Their decisions are so intrinsically reliant upon each other that nothing either does comes without a cost that affects them together. This truth isn’t about blame, though. Toni’s struggles only force Tyler to do what he does superficially. And Tyler’s choice only places Toni and Aliyah in danger if you hold a reductive outlook on the bigger picture. Simon is the villain. He’s the predator that feeds off the systemic issues government and laws create in order to keep the wealthy happy. Toni and Tyler are victims to societal deficiencies and psychological distress before Simon ever enters their orbit. That’s why their shared rough but manageable life unravels so quickly into this nightmare.

Dickinson is great as this figure of temptation that’s just as likely to lend a hand as punch you in the face depending on what he needs from you. That duality is key to understanding how kids can find themselves doing his bidding and why it’s so hard to get out when the truth reveals itself. Khan and Madekwe’s heart-wrenching performances are thus about more than their own characters. His tempestuousness and her scared anger are also about the countless other boys and girls Blake puts on-screen to make certain we don’t forget Tyler and Toni’s experiences aren’t isolated incidents. This is an assembly line so vast that Simon can conversely walk away whenever he is satisfied. That’s the true horror here. One life saved isn’t nearly enough.

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