Upon watching this harrowing movie (inspired by true events) one almost craves the ‘innocent’ and toffee-nosed world of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’! Director Henry Blake’s powerful social drama about a London teenager groomed to be a bona fide drug mule emphasizes the fact that society in 21st century Britain is a broken one.

Meet Tyler (Conrad Khan), a deeply troubled (and troublesome) 14-year old who has been excluded from a pupil referral unit for his aggressive behaviour and soon finds himself in even deeper waters courtesy of a highly unstable home: stressed-out and overworked Mum Toni (Ashley Madewke) works nightshifts as a cleaner which leaves Tyler to look after his younger sister Aliyah (Tabitha Milne-Price). Dinner is usually comprised of junk food – the word ‘nutrition’ certainly doesn’t come into it. As the saying ‘An ugly environment creates ugly people’ goes this is certainly true for the world Tyler inhabits. It is a joyless, depressing and brutal world in which its inhabitants are deprived of any aspirations, let alone love or understanding. Indeed, at the very beginning of the film an assigned youth worker tells Tyler that he is regarded as an ‘acceptable loss’ and although it is actually a snippet of a later scene it sets the tone for what is about to unfold…

During another occasion, when Tyler finds himself bullied in a chicken shop, he is ‘rescued’ by a young man called Simon (Harris Dickinson) for no apparent reason or so it would seem, though when Tyler thanks Simon the following day the true colours of this modern-day pied piper of Hamelin (well, London actually) soon come to light: Simon is a smooth operator who grooms vulnerable adolescents into becoming drug mules crossing county lines (hence the film’s title) delivering illegal substances to various clients and then delivering the money back to Simon. Although Simon is a total low-life from a moral point of view his flash lifestyle is anything but low-brow. Of course when he treats Tyler to a slap-up meal it won’t be a posh restaurant but another cheap burger joint. When it emerges that Tyler’s mum has lost her job, smooth-talking Simon suggests it’s about high time the teenager showed some responsibility in his life and acted like the man of the house… and soon Tyler is on his first train journey to Canvey Island to deliver drugs shoved up his rectum. In Canvey Island – another joyless setting – he encounters ‘client’ cum middleman Sadiq (Marcus Rutherford) and junkie Izzy (Johanna Stanton) who, during the course of the evening, gets viciously assaulted by Sadiq when he decides she gets on his nerves. This is the turning point that should set off Tyler’s inner alarm bells but given the fact that for the first time in his life he is earning proper money he continues with his new ‘job’ - soon arousing his mum’s suspicions as to where all that money suddenly comes from. “I’m cleaning cars” he replies and seeing how mum rightly doesn’t believe a single word a violent row is on the cards.

Tyler’s almost daily routine continues and we see him becoming ever more ruthless until that fateful day when Simon, or perhaps Sadiq, or perhaps both, decide that he’s become to big for his own shoes and – after a near fatal assault during which he gets stabbed and has acid chucked in his face – leave Tyler for dead in a derelict spot somewhere in the countryside. Meanwhile, worried mum Toni has no idea where here missing son is (she had told him to get the f*** out of the house after their row) and to add to her anxiety she discovers a box full of illegal substances under his bed. As if things weren’t grim enough Simon suddenly appears on her doorstep, wasting no time in introducing herself and informing her in a calm and casual manner that her son owes him two grand. If she doesn’t cough up the spondulix then… Miraculously Tyler survives the attack and thanks to a helpful passer-by manages to call his mum from a truck stop. Just like in the world of dark and light, the dark moment arrives when Toni hands Simon the cash in an envelope… who then drives away in his posh car with a new and underage drug mule in the front seat. The light moment arrives when Tyler – after being rescued by mum and spending time in hospital – gets ‘re-installed’ in his local PRU courtesy of his kindly teacher (Anthony Adjekum), one of the view people who make an effort to steer the lad onto a more promising path.

Director Henry Blake, himself a former youth worker in a PRU, has managed to deliver a deeply thoughtful social drama with is multi-award nominated film, depicting a topic usually brushed under the carpet: that of underage drug traffickers in modern-day Britain. It is a cold and unforgiving environment and even Sverre Sordal’s suitably atmospheric cinematography is deliberately dipped in cold Nordic hues. The main actors may not be household names but their performances come across as real and compelling. It is a world you hope you’ll never encounter and this powerful drama (the film uses the ‘six months earlier / six months later’ concept to great effect), although it makes for some depressing watching, inevitably draws you in.

Released both on Blu-ray and DVD, COUNTY LINES offers the following Extras:

* Henry Blake’s 2017 short film ‘County Lines’ / * Q&A / * Anatomy of a Scene: Henry Blake and Conrad Khan discuss key scenes / * ‘Gus & Son’ – Henry Blake’s 2017 short film starring David Hayman / * ‘Children of the City’ (1944) – a dramatized study of child delinquency in Scotland / * Trailer / * Stills gallery / * booklet