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County Lines review – dour but vital glimpse at teen drug trafficking

Henry Blake’s directorial debut is a relentlessly bleak affair, though it offers a powerful lead performance from newcomer Conrad Khan

There is a simultaneously galvanising and gruelling feeling that lingers after watching County Lines. It feels urgent to have taken a glimpse into the horrific reality affecting teenagers all over the country involved in organised crime, specifically the kind pressuring young people to transport and sell drugs – but it’s also terrifying to process that all of this is true and still ongoing.

Writer-director Henry Blake makes his feature debut with a grim and unrelenting look at the life of one teen, Tyler (played by newcomer Conrad Khan), as he gets wrapped up in the eponymous nightmare. We see him wriggle through school as an outcast, wandering around and searching for meaning, until an older kid, Simon (Harris Dickinson, both magnetic and unnerving), offers him a way to make money and support his family. What Tyler will lose in the process is, of course, the least of his worries.

County Lines commits to a dour tone, leaning on its real-life source material to present a portrait of an upsetting reality. It means the film is unrelentingly heavy, often difficult to watch – particularly in scenes of confrontation between Tyler and his mother Toni (Ashley Madekwe, compelling) that deal in physical and psychological violence alike.

Khan is powerful and watchable as Tyler, paving his own way as a new kind of teen protagonist. He turns his uncertainties and fears into weapons – there’s none of the familiar bumbling that we tend to associate with many young characters, as vulnerability is given higher stakes than ever before here. It can be difficult at times to connect with Tyler and his family, though, as stern and resentful stares are favoured over much emotional clarity.

It does mean, however, that moments of relief feel particularly moving – as Tyler finally breaks down and lets his mother understand how much he’s hurting, as the pair finally let themselves love each other properly. The battle is certainly not over for many, but at least County Lines shines a necessary light on just how important it is to take care of the next generation.

County Lines is available in cinemas and on select digital platforms from 4 December.

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