Tales of young teens being sent to sell drugs in small towns across Britain are familiar but easily forgotten.
The scourge of violence that accompanies the trade makes headlines but the names and lives of those involved are largely blank.
Henry Blake’s County Lines is an attempt to change that.
The story centres on 14 year old Tyler (Conrad Khan) who lives on an east London estate.
At school, when he’s not getting into fights, Tyler is withdrawn—his sullen face matching the greyness of his surroundings.
But at home Tyler takes care of business. He looks after his young sister and is seen constantly cooking, washing up, getting her ready for bed and up for school the next morning.
Their mum Toni works nights as a cleaner and spends the day trying to sleep.
When Toni loses her job, the thread that barely holds their lives together snaps. Tyler’s hopelessness and need is spotted by Simon, a local dealer who seems to have everything.
With care and skill, he grooms Tyler for a bit part in his operation.
Soon the boy is covering wraps of drugs in cling film and Vaseline and transporting packages stuffed into his arse to seaside towns.
But Tyler’s problem has never been simply the lack of good adults in his life. It is that the substance of his life is robbing it of any meaning and any way to survive
And it is there, in the bleak forgotten towns of south east England, that the real squalor begins.
No detail is spared to show how Tyler’s pitiful life now reflects those of his addicted customers.
Simon had empathised with Tyler saying they both had to “be the man of the house” while still children. It soon becomes obvious that not only means bring in the cash, as Tyler now does, but also enforcing discipline.
A graphic representation of what that conception of masculinity means is starkly brought home. But the episode, though convincing, points to a weakness in the story.
Who is to blame for the way Tyler lives now is not clear.
Those who argue that lack of male role models is what drives young men to crime will doubtless find comfort in the film. But so will those that insist social conditions, demonisation and demoralisation are key.
Such ambiguity can in art be a useful way of exploring questions, but on an issue that is so highly politically charged as youth violence it feels like avoidance.
There is a similar problem with the way school authorities and social services are represented as a potential way out.
This no doubt reflects Blake’s past as youth worker in an east London pupil referral unit.
At times it feels as though the only calming and sensible voices in the film come from them. It is as though if only they could get through to Tyler, they could help turn his life around.
But Tyler’s problem has never been simply the lack of good adults in his life.
It is that the substance of his life is robbing it of any meaning and any way to survive. Everything in the film, from the bleak blue pallet to desolate landscapes, exists to reinforce that point.
In cinemas and on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 4 December