Between my first and second viewings of County Lines, the debut film from youth worker Henry Blake, a fatal turn of events went global. In a halcyon, pre-Covid February, I watched the film in the relative comfort of the BFI Southbank in London. People were spread apart because of low attendance rather than social distancing, likely due to the film’s tiny budget and horrifying subject-matter.  I wrote at the time, in an early draft of this review, that it’s an underrated pleasure to watch a small and difficult film projected on a tall and luxurious screen.

Originally slated for April, County Lines is one of the first films to be released in cinemas after Lockdown 2.0, but only in Tier 1 and Tier 2 areas. I’m restricted to a Tier 3 zone, so perhaps the chance to see the film again in a cinema has dissolved. But for those living in the lower tiers, that opportunity is just opening up. I advise you take it.

County Lines has all the gritty minimalism and working-class politics of a Ken Loach movie (Sorry We Missed You in particular) while straining successfully for a more personal, psychological style. Its context – of a kind you see on the news before turning to something nicer – is harshly presented and rarely holds back: following the 14-year-old Tyler (a quietly delicate Conrad Khan) as he’s recruited to deliver drugs to the countryside. (The term ‘county lines’ refers to this amoral criminal system.)

Tyler’s a loner, and Blake makes that clear from the start. He’s bullied at school, doesn’t speak to anyone – often clouded in the grey shadows of school corridors. Cinematographer Sverre Sørdal keeps him inside a frame that’s tight, shallow, and murky: alienated from everyone around him. There are times when people are no more than bodies, wandering out of focus.

He doesn’t look for trouble (well, not at first), but trouble finds him. And that trouble soon comes with a caring smile painted on the brotherly face of Simon (Harris Dickinson), a county lines operator. Given the absence of any male or parental influence in his family, Tyler easily looks up to him – especially as he scares off the bullies and buys him new shoes. It’s a welcome change from his exhausting home life, caring for his little sister Aliyah (Tabitha Milne-Price) while his mum Toni (Ashley Madekwe) goes out at night: either to clean hotel rooms or find a sexual prospect.

“That’s what being a man’s about,” Simon says. “Dealing with stress.” Blake examines Tyler’s fragile masculinity as he feels he needs to look after his family. He is the man of the house, after all, and feels compelled to prove his mettle. After some more dire circumstances, he realises he can participate in the county lines system to make extra cash. But he enters a nauseously bleak underworld, his first route leading him to a decrepit crack den with torn curtains and bloody syringes. Blake deliberately avoids any of the entertaining genre value of drug dramas like Breaking Bad to penetrate these sordid realities. One scene, difficult to watch, has Tyler insert cling-filmed drugs into his rectum with Vaseline: difficult and disgusting pushing in, even more so pulling out.

Blake creates a charitable awareness of the groomed children recruited into county lines, some as young as 11. County Lines is transparently political from that perspective, but keeps the speeches down to a minimum – choosing wisely to focus on Tyler’s trauma. These kids aren’t necessarily bad, they’ve just been cornered into an evil situation. And despite his faults and near-unforgivable actions, Tyler shows his likeability. That’s what makes his cracked, precarious path all the more upsetting.

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