"Do you know what an acceptable loss in your business is? It's you. You are the acceptable loss."
It's a powerful line, but the recipient – a 14-year old boy – just stares back, impassive, oppositional, bored, frightened-but-hiding-it.
This is the opening of County Lines, a new film exploring the ever-growing practice of inner-city drug gangs sending young people across the country to take over territory in smaller towns and villages. I sat down with the film's writer/director, Henry Blake, to hear how this project grew out of his own extensive work with at-risk young people.
"I've been working at Pupil Referral Units for about 11 years," he begins. "You're forced to confront extraordinarily tough situations – physical, psychological, emotional, sexual abuse. And, of course, a lot of drugs – all with really young, vulnerable kids."
Pupil Referral Units, or PRUs, are more often than not where kids end up if they've been excluded from mainstream education. Over the past few years there has been a surge in the number of referrals – despite growing evidence of how exclusions feed the exploitation of young people through the drugs trade. It was through exactly this dynamic that Henry Blake first heard about county lines.
"There was one kid I was working with who went missing from the sessions for a while," he says. "When he eventually reappeared I got out of him that he'd been sent from London to Aberdeen – only, he'd lost his drugs so had been stuck with a debt of several grand to his own gang. We had to arrange taxis for him to and from the educational setting, because there was a direct threat to his life. But even so, someone slashed his throat. He survived, but then you find yourself sitting across from a 15-year-old with slash marks on his neck."
Blake began to come across more and more stories like this, but what really pushed him to begin writing the film were the common public misconceptions and prejudices about the young people involved.
"People have this idea of the kid who's involved in serious youth violence – hood up, aggressive attitude, etc. But that boy who was sent to Aberdeen was a really bright, talented, funny, open kid. But he was also seriously traumatised – and that vulnerability had been exploited by an older gang in a really deliberate, organised, predatory way. I saw that process many times. If you're a gangster, who are you going to go for – the mouthy, aggressive kid who's going to get himself noticed, or the psychologically vulnerable kid who you can manipulate into becoming emotionally and financially dependent on you?"
This is the journey traced in the film, following the character Tyler – played by Conrad Khan, with a powerful mix of anger, inscrutability and teenage confusion – as he is drawn from his PRU into the world of county lines dealing.
Perhaps the most surprising and effective thing about County Lines, though, is that it doesn’t feel like a drugs movie. We only actually see Tyler slinging crack and heroin a couple of times. This is a film about the emotional realities of the people caught up in the drug war. It's about how this character got here – an absent father, a mother unable to cope with the pressures of motherhood and state institutions consistently denied the resources to meet the needs of those in their care.
There is no glamorisation of gangster life – no Top Boy–style images of speeding motorbikes and choreographed assassinations. The soundtrack isn't the UK grime we've come to expect from the genre, it's expressive strings and subtle drones which provide a palpable sense of intimacy.
"The power of cinema is that you can really dive into a character's perspective, their internal state," explains Blake, whose film was premiered at the BFI London Film Festival this week. "The way we shot this was more influenced by photographers like Nan Goldin and William Eggleston, and painters like George Bellows and Rembrandt. The main direction I gave the actors was always to do less."
It's not often you hear Rembrandt referenced in connection with modern British gang culture, but Blake's comments on the cast ring true. These roles would have been so easy to overplay, but Harris Dickinson and Marcus Rutherford as the older gangsters – and especially Ashley Madekwe as Tyler's struggling mother – deliver performances that achieve an almost eerie power precisely because they refuse to recycle the clichés of the genre or slide into melodrama.
Ultimately, County Lines is as much a coming-of-age film as anything else. The older gangster consciously plays on Tyler's inner need to be "the man of the house" – but, in a horrifying reversal, Tyler finds himself repeating those words at the exact moment he most hurts those he cares about. It's harrowing cinema, laying bare how easily formative ideas of masculinity can turn toxic in the face of trauma, the drug trade and a brutally indifferent society.
As Henry Blake insists, "What I saw doing youth work is that the driving force behind all this is trauma. We don't understand enough how trauma affects the development and life choices of these young people. This film is about the emotional devastation and human cost of the drug business – for the children themselves, but also for their families and those around them."
A few years ago I interviewed a guy who had been a major LSD supplier to the 1970s UK hippy scene. When I used the term "War on Drugs" in front of him, he snorted in derision, saying, "There's no such thing as a War on Drugs, only a war on people." County Lines is an important and ferociously powerful film not just because it is beautifully put together, but because it's telling the stories of those people.
One can only hope that Henry Blake's faith in the power of cinema holds true, and the film might go some way towards changing minds around how we think and talk about those actually caught up in county lines – and the laws that make these situations almost inevitable.