We’ve all heard the phrase “county lines” bandied about in news articles – but likely few of us have a true grasp of how the UK’s drug networks play out in reality for the vulnerable young people they exploit. Henry Blake’s new film is here to change that.

County Lines offers a chilling inside look at the issue, following one young man’s experience of being sucked into the dark underworld as a drug mule, running goods out of the city to surrounding small towns and coastal villages in exchange for the cash his family so desperately needs. It’s a coming-of-age film as much as a study of the impact of ruthless criminal gangs on our country’s deprived youth, and newcomer Conrad Khan puts in an incredibly impressive and affecting performance as Tyler. Ashley Madekwe plays his ultimately loving yet clearly struggling mother, always at the mercy of the circumstances she finds herself in, whereas breakout Beach Rats star Harris Dickinson is the seemingly charming big-brother figure Tyler craves who in fact cruelly takes advantage of his desire to help his mum and sister.

With this film, Blake certainly doesn’t shy away from the bleak and brutal. But in doing so he brings to the fore a pressing truth about the complex factors that allow such exploitation to happen with impunity. And indeed as we learn that in fact the pandemic is exacerbating the problem – with the kids of financially hit families increasingly preyed upon – it’s not a moment too soon.

We spoke to the Kiwi writer and director Henry Blake about why he wanted to tackle the issue of county lines drug networks and the young people exploited by them, how his own experiences as a youth worker helped inform the authenticity of the story and what he hopes the impact of the film will be.

We also spoke to Ashley Madekwe about playing Tyler’s struggling mother, how she saw the character and the challenge of filming some of the movie’s most intense scenes.

By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 4th December 2020.

County Lines is released in cinemas and digitally on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema on 4th December 2020.