County Lines isn’t your dad’s crime film. You won’t find the glitzy lifestyle as seen in genre classics like Scarface – there’s no guns, endless riches and high-class lifestyle here. Instead, it’s a sobering and at times really visceral look at how exploitative the drug trade is, and the children that pay the price for their superiors to profit and thrive.

The film follows Tyler (Conrad Khan), a fourteen-year-old Londoner introduced to the seedy drug underworld by Simon (Harris Dickinson). With his mother working night shifts as a cleaner, Tyler is left to care for his younger sister Aaliyah, and as the seam starts splitting in his personal life, he turns to running drugs across county borders as easy income to support his family.

It’s this promise — of not having to worry about where the next meal will come from — that entices thousands of children into county lines running in Britain. These dealers purposefully prey on those who have the least, and director Henry Blake makes it clear that this is no equal relationship. He shows Simon with expensive watches, a flashy car and dining in expensive restaurants with his family, while Tyler does the dirty work – and at times, it’s very dirty. These children — and often, pre-teen children — are mere cogs in a revolving door of naive and vulnerable workers who risk everything for a pay check.

More than anything, County Lines is a desperately sad film. So often, society tells us not to sympathise with criminals, that they aren’t like us, that they don’t deserve sympathy. But Tyler is just a child, and a troubled one at that, and at so many points within the film, it really dawns on you how tragic his situation is. Conrad Khan soars in the role, rightfully nominated for the BAFTA Rising Star award as a result, capturing the gamut of teenage emotions, from unchecked rage to utter despair. The entire production is so convincing, and writer-director Blake really deserves credit for the film’s encapsulation of working-class British life. County Lines follows the segment of society abandoned by its government, left to struggle and fend for themselves, and for that reason it really shouldn’t be a surprise that people like Tyler have to go to such lengths to make ends meet.

One thing County Lines certainly doesn’t do is glamourise the life that Tyler feels obligated to lead. Without giving away details, it gets horrifically dark at points, and truly goes to places of violence that few crime films dare touch, that’ll be sure to strike a chord with audiences in tune with British gang culture. While it might wrap up a little too neatly at the end, with Tyler’s character perhaps short-changed in the last ten minutes or so, there’s certainly no happy ending in sight here – and leaves viewers with the daunting realisation that Tyler’s case is just one of thousands. You see it throughout the film too: when Tyler’s work is done, a different child steps in, and the despair that elicits is so powerful.

Ultimately, that’s what County Lines wants to get across – the idea that the real victims here are the ones without a voice, the children trapped in a system that truly doesn’t care about them. Someone like Simon would just as easily see Tyler dead as lose some of his product, and the film’s opening scene nails this down from the start. It’s a confidently directed, harrowing film that is truly required viewing in the British crime genre.

★★★½

County Lines is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital.