A seriously eye-catching debut and almost certainly the hardest-hitting movie ever directed by a man named Henry, this drugs drama from youth worker-turned-filmmaker Henry Blake packs all the authenticity you’d expect from a storyteller who really knows whereof he speaks. It’s almost Aesopian in its simplicity – The Boy Who Skipped School and Basically Ended up in Requiem for a Dream – as Blake charts the push-and-pull pressures that draw tens of thousands of British teens into the UK drugs trade through the eyes of brooding 14-year-old Tyler (impressive newcomer Conrad Khan).
Bullied at school and with a loving but frustrated mum (Ashley Madekwe) struggling to compensate for the dad who skipped out on them, Tyler is ripe to fall under the spell of Simon, a self-proclaimed ‘entrepreneur’ who drives a Merc, flashes his cash and oozes persuasive menace. Played by the charismatic Harris Dickinson (Beach Rats), he’s soon coaxing Tyler to bail on school for sneaker shopping and a burger. You know he’s grooming him, and you suspect Tyler knows it too, but it barely matters: he’s being offered an escape. Of sorts.
The real-life county lines crisis, in which expendable youngsters are sent out from the big city to traffick drugs to rural towns, forms the grim backdrop to what follows. But this is a domestic drama, rather than a social one, Maria Full of Grace rather than Traffic. Blake ushers you into Tyler’s box-fresh sneakers to experience a life of anxiety-laden train journeys, hurried deals and squalid trap houses. It’s all enveloped in a soundscape of distant shouting, hostile voices and sirens. It’s not a comfortable experience – and it shouldn’t be.
Khan is terrific, offering glimpses of sensitivity beneath the sullenness. The whole cast gels, right down to small but key supporting roles from Anthony Adjekum as a kindly teacher with a line in jovial bullshitting and Carlyss Peer as a straight-talking youth worker (and, presumably, a surrogate for Blake himself). There’s degradation and despair here, but kindness and compassion too – and some visual poetry. The nastiest movie loo since Trainspotting aside, there’s eerie beauty in Blake’s muted compositions. You can’t say the same for the life of its young protagonist.
In UK cinemas Dec 4.