I saw 2 films about 14-year olds, made 50 years apart.
We are soon told that Wynne is adopted, which is why she is the only family member to be a practising Catholic, as her denomination was specified earlier by the mother who gave her up. The rest of her family are Mrs Kinch, their granddad, and the older males George and Len. Len is a bit of a wild 60s boy whilst George is 34 and has a photo of himself in his National Servicemen’s uniform with his fiancee. His fiancee died in an accident at the old family home, which they vacated when they moved in to one of the new tower blocks in Bracknell. Other brutalist structures can be seen under construction as we travel around.
Wynne and her best friend Corinne have a jolly old time at their RC school, embarrassing a visiting priest giving a talk about marriage, asking him “What’s the Pope got against the Pill?” Both girls are the targets for harassment in the town centre by male pests of all ages, but they’re also keen to get started with boyfriends as soon as possible. Wynne is in fact obsessed with George and can see no problem about them getting married in a few years, since they aren’t blood relations. George being the man of the household gives a very strong impression of solid masculinity, having a regular job as a carpenter and joiner, and stamping down on Len’s silliness when he finds out the latter has been buying funny pills off his dodgy mate who looks like John Lennon, or listening to weird records.
There’s a dark shadow over the town: the Dalstead Strangler has been active, killing young women and dumping their bodies about the place. The latest victim has been found near the Kinch’s old house, and various evasions by George lead young Wynne to imagine that he might be the baddie, and he needs rescuing from his psychotic isolation by the power of her redeeming love. This is of course quite deluded and a pursuit and confrontation leads to the discovery that George has an older lover who is dependent on him. Adults have secrets but they’re not as romantic or extreme as the ones teenagers can imagine for them.
Going forward to 2019, and the world of County Lines. We start with young Tyler being interrogated by an unseen educational psychologist, a scene that will be reprised later in the film but viewed from the other side and with his interrogator in view.
Fun fact: according to the BFI notes, the original novel of I Start Counting! started with Wynne “being held in a remand home while the Director Of Public Prosecutions decides whether to charge her as an accessory for having ‘assisted and comforted a murderer'” and had a “flashback structure” which was cut in favour of strict linearity; so it may have been more like the looping in County Lines.
It’s a grim life for Tyler, being a moody sullen teen in a school where he’s frequently getting in classroom fights. He had some talent as a footballer but that seems to have faded out of his life. His mum is exhausted from her job as a cleaner, and he has a younger sister to watch over as well. And then he gets the attention of a protective older brother figure called Simon, who tells him he’s the man of his house and needs to step up to the role.
SIMON: Stressful… That’s what being a man’s about though, dealing with stress. Innit?
Simon soon has work for young Tyler.
Although locations are not clearly stated, notice that the station he leaves from is East Croydon, and he travels out to somewhere near seawater, which we can assume is just the Canvey Island cited as a filming location in the credits.
The film is reminiscent of Fish Tank from about a decade earlier. The soundtrack is sparse, with most scenes passing without a score, but frantic electronica is turned out when Tyler has to race into action, and ambient drones raise for the emotional turning points, such as the very obviously symbolic moment when he has a choice of 2 directions to take and he opts to walk to Simon’s car and accept the commission offered to him. We get proper cinematic strings for the sentimental family reunion resolution. At times the image has blurred edges, which seems to correspond to moments when Tyler’s isolation is most intense.
The initial titles are presented stark and alone on a black backdrop, and at the end there is a note that up to 10,000 teens and children “as young as 11” are believed to be employed in moving drugs around the so-called “county lines” rackets. The time shift of 6 months bringing us to the interview with the psychologist occurs around the middle, but there is no simple symmetry about his rise/fall as a footsoldier. We get a glimpse of Simon’s rather more stable and respectable-looking family life, and at the end his “little man” son is driving away with him. There was an old Charlie Brooker joke about how the grittiest British films were made by posh kids, and this one doffs its cap to that idea in its credits:
A Child’s Guide To Good & Evil was of course an album by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and you can see Len putting a copy of it back in the rack in the groovy record shop he works at:
Of course what all these kids just need is a clip round the ear from old George, and maybe even a bit of National Service as well, never did him any harm did it.