The rising crime trend of 'County Lines' refers to the use of disaffected and vulnerable inner-city children as drug mules to move illegal substances and money across the UK.
This specific social issue is the focus of director Henry Blake's feature debut, which takes an unrelentingly grim and realistic look at how these groomed children are impacted by this criminal industry.
Isolated and unhappy 14-year-old Tyler (Conrad Khan) struggles with school and his fellow pupils, whilst also being keen to be the man of the house for his single mother Toni(Ashley Madekwe) and his sweet little sister.
After Tyler is saved from bullies by a stranger, his charismatic savour Simon (Harris Dickinson) preys on his insecurities and unhappiness to draw him into a highly dangerous trafficking enterprise that sees Tyler transport drugs across the UK.
Despite the increasingly violent and unnerving encounters he faces, Tyler begins to transform himself into a threatening and abusive figure, to his family’s horror.
Can Tyler be pulled back from the brink before it is too late?
Not giving in to the conventions of gangland films, County Lines instead grounds its action in the experience of the young and manipulated Tyler and the impact of his descent into criminal exploitation on his loved ones.
Newcomer Conrad Khan is excellent as Tyler, tackling his initial awkward misery and then his more aggressive demeanour with aplomb, while Ashley Madewke also captures his mother’s transformation from a once fiery figure to someone more brittle and victimised.
Another standout is Harris Dickinson (fresh from roles in Maleficent 2 and Beach Rats) who brings a needed level of cool charisma to Simon as he seduces Tyler into his criminal network but quickly turns icy, sinister and indignant.
Blake does dish out the horrors of trafficking drugs with young children in spades, with Tyler visiting decrepit properties, seeing struggling junkies, and facing violence from other rival networks - even at the hands of other manipulated teens - with one brutal sequence featuring talented EastEnders star Clay Milner Russell as another vulnerable child pushed into criminality.
The film is bleak viewing and is also visually grey and dark too thanks to cinematographer Sverre Sørdal, and it feels hard not to conclude that the storyline will end hopelessly.
However, despite the destructive nature of the social issue being tackled here, Blake does not provide a total message of nihilism to this cautionary tale - as Tyler's mother hopes to pull him back from the brink of doom.
Ultimately, County Lines feels like an authentic slice of British social realist drama and one that specifically handles an increasingly prevalent issue amongst British youths.
County Lines is a grim, gritty, and powerfully relevant issue-led drama about child exploitation and crime, but is also a brutal coming of age journey.
County Lines is released on digital and in select cinemas on December 4, 2020.