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  County Lines Save The Children (And The Mothers)
Year: 2019
Director: Henry Blake
Stars: Harris Dickinson, Ashley Madekwe, Marcus Rutherford, Conrad Khan, Carlyss Peer, Johanna Stanton, Chizzy Akudolu, Clay Milner Russell, Shauna Shim, Chris Kyriacou, Ebenezer Gyau, Anthony Adjekum, Sean Berry, Michael Oku, Mika Wingate, Stephen Leask
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Tyler (Conrad Khan) is a London teenager who is not having a great time at school, and with nobody to discuss his feelings with is growing ever more isolated. He lives with his single mother Toni (Ashley Madekwe) and his little sister in a small flat, but his parent is a wayward soul who frequently gets too drunk to cope, and has trouble holding down even the most menial of jobs, bringing home different men every so often for sex, but nobody who would stand in for a much-needed father figure for her kids. To add to the problems, Tyler is being bullied at school, making him more withdrawn and prone to lashing out...

But one evening when he is buying chips, a stranger, Simon (Harris Dickinson), steps in to warn the bullies off. County Lines was identifiably in the tradition of the social realism school of British filmmaking that reached from Ken Loach through to works like London to Brighton or Lynn + Lucy, but it was made with one mission in mind: to highlight the titular issue for ten thousand kids across Britain at that time. This was their recruitment by drug dealers who would use them to transport hard drugs across the country, sometimes secreted in invasively intimate areas, and doing so funded organised crime.

Writer and director Henry Blake knew what he was talking about, having worked to rescue many children, some as young as eleven years old, from the clutches of the unscrupulous. Tyler was representative of those youngsters, a sadly typical story. Needless to say, this was ninety minutes of utter misery, and for that reason may have trouble finding an audience, especially as it was released during the coronavirus pandemic when escapism was the order of the day for millions. However, if you braced yourself, you would find a movie that had great compassion for its errant protagonist, though that did not tell the whole story for his mother was almost as important in the plot as he was: their fates were intertwined, and the damage they did to one another was enough to break either one's heart.

We see Toni's inability to cope with motherhood (we cannot believe her children were planned) has left her son all at sea, and if her daughter is the most capable of the trio, then that is not exactly a terrific way for a family to be operating when it really needs a guiding hand. Social work steps in, but is it enough? One powerfully frustrating scene sees Tyler just about to open up to his school councillor, when suddenly someone sets off the fire alarm, thwarting them both: it was that kind of situation he was stuck in, unable thanks to circumstances to catch a break sufficient to allow him to escape a life headed to crime. Simon seems like a supportive character, but he is simply exploitative, come the conclusion and he is asked why he entrapped Tyler he merely says "It's easy".

This is highlighting his utter lack of compassion or decency, never mind care for the vulnerable; we don't have much more insight into Simon than this. The point being made was that where those vulnerable are, there are also those who use and pick on them, manipulating them to fulfil a role. Be that the bullies who need someone to look down on, or the criminals who ruin lives (the addicts, the young drug runners) to make a profit. It's not as if we're invited to judge which is worse, they're depicted as part of a cycle that drives the exploited and put upon into a victim role that the heartless can capitalise on socially or financially. Although the film was on Tyler and Toni's side, it did not shy away from their at times appalling behaviour, but we feel more sad things have come to this than angry at their terrible mistakes. Yet this was an unrelentingly grim watch that only managed to pick up the mood in the final minute or two, a tough ask no matter how important the subject was. Very well done, nevertheless. Music by James Pickering.

[County Lines is released in cinemas and digitally on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema on 4 December.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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