County Lines is available to stream on BFI Player.

As drug-related activity has fanned out from major metropolitan centres to provincial areas, the term ‘county lines’ has recently been much used in the UK media. It was perhaps inevitable that British film or television would use it as an attention-grabbing title; more surprising is the provenance of this striking feature’s writer-director Henry Blake, who has 11 years’ experience counselling vulnerable young people exploited by the drugs trade.

As this bracing drama unfolds, we’re drawn in and held by a sense that this first-time filmmaker absolutely knows whereof he speaks, and wants to speak up for those caught in an unfolding social tragedy. What is exceptional about the piece is Blake’s avoidance of well-worn cinematic paths – either the plot-heavy austere social realism of the Paul Laverty/Ken Loach school or the market-friendly urban-styled youth flick â la Noel Clarke.

Instead, he has created a distinctive stylistic context, through cameraman Sverre Sørdal’s unsettling, heightened colour palette and the dread-filled droning of James Pickering’s score, to illuminate the fear and paranoia experienced by those involved. The closest filmic reference point might be Lee Chang-dong’s Burning; Blake himself suggests he looked beyond cinema for inspiration to the photography of William Eggleston and Nan Goldin and even Rembrandt’s canvases, claims borne out by what we see on screen.

Conrad Khan as Tyler

That said, the film’s captivating quality is founded in the potent screen presence of its young leading man Conrad Khan, as the errant son Tyler. Khan convinces as a taciturn, seemingly benign outsider, but in his East London comprehensive it’s impossible to lie low all the time. He gets picked on, confrontation escalates, and soon teachers and his hard-pressed single mother are struggling to get through to him. An introductory framing device has already used pointed questioning by an off-screen counsellor, but once we move back in time to explore the build-up to impending crisis, the story’s patient unfolding allows us to appreciate the give-and-take between Tyler and his milieu.

The lack of a male authority figure at home is significant; so is the fact that mum Toni (Ashley Madekwe, a performance carefully calibrated between weakness and strength) works nights as a cleaner, so that the family’s paths cross mainly at breakfast. That leaves Tyler with a perhaps misguided sense that he needs to be the household’s patriarchal figure, and what follows is about a quest for status, for authority and breadwinning opportunities.

That’s where Harris Dickinson’s slick-talking streetwise ‘entrepreneur’ Simon comes in, sizing up the boy with promises of easy money. The trouble is that in Simon’s world authority is maintained by violence, and boyish vulnerability cannot be part of the equation. As Tyler begins to earn his cut, delivering drugs to a southern coastal town, there’s a palpable feeling of doom. This cautionary tale is heading in one direction – though the retribution visited on the wiry 14-year-old proves shocking in its ferocity.

Ashley Madekwe as Toni in County Lines

The film shows profound compassion, but little in the way of heaped-on sentiment. Blake refuses either to pillory the mother and the hassled school staff, or to give any of them a free pass, instead concentrating on the emotional and practical adjustments that might ameliorate the situation for kids like Tyler.

There is a maturity of analysis here; but the film’s stylistic daring turns it from able reportage into a startling piece of pure cinema. Colours, greens especially, are sickly enough to make your flesh crawl, creating an uneasy vision from everyday environs, and this defamiliarisation delivers stomach-knotting disquiet throughout – amplified by the score’s unsettling dissonances. Blake’s framing too often seems wider than we would expect, leaving the viewer with a cumulative sense of powerlessness that, perhaps counter-intuitively, intensifies involvement with the material.

It takes a lot of nerve to hold everything back, as Blake does so successfully here, trusting in Khan’s arresting presence, by turns pitiful and threatening, to hold the attention. It’s a vindication for a truly independent production, set up outside the usual institutional support schemes, which has allowed an exciting, unexpected, unconventional new directorial voice to ring out so loud and clear.

Further reading

“People need to know this”: County Lines and the teenage trauma of drug running

Director Henry Blake talks about his new film and the real-life nightmare of ‘county lines’ drug trafficking that inspired him to make it.

By Isabel Stevens

“People need to know this”: County Lines and the teenage trauma of drug running

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.