Director Curtis Hanson has a small amount of clout in Hollywood these days for making hard-hitting dramas like Wonder Boys, 8 Mile, and In Her Shoes. He is also the mastermind behind one of my favorite movies, L.A. Confidential, which, if you haven’t seen, I encourage you to run out and rent immediately. Seriously. Don’t finish reading this review. Rent L.A. Confidential instead. What is often forgotten about Hanson-the-auteur is that he is actually more often the maker of chintzy soap operas and TV movies than he is a master filmmaker. To remind you: he made the gorgeous campy schlock The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, the sex comedy Losin’ It, and the largely rotten gambling drama Lucky You. So for those familiar with his entire oeuvre, it should come as no surprise that he is the mastermind of the schmaltzy, weepy 1986 TV movie The Children of Times Square, one of the most recent releases from the MGM Limited Edition Collection, that studio’s print-on-demand DVD service.
The Children of Times Squareis a TV movie through-and-through. That is to say: its drama is extra melodramatic, the acting is predictably over-the-top, and the film is devoted to finger-wagging and tut-tutting at the youth crisis du jour. In this case, the crisis involves teen runaways, teen prostitution, teen drug dealing, and teen addiction, all on the hard-edged streets of pre-Giuliani New York. And, just to ram the message home, The Children of Times Square is a rather transparent modern update of Oliver Twist.
Oliver is now the white suburban teenage malcontent Eric Roberts (yes, that is the character’s name, as played by Brandon Douglas), who runs away from his mom and stepdad when they yell at him for shirking a babysitting job in favor of a rock concert. Can he go to his dad? “His father used to beat him!” we’re told in a typically inelegant piece of dialogue. He runs away to New York, where he meets The Artful Dodger, or “Skater” (Larry B. Scott from Revenge of the Nerds and Space Camp). Skater is a cocaine dealer who is second in command to the film’s Fagin, a guy named Otis (Howard E. Rollins Jr.). Otis is the benevolent (?) overlord to The Leopards, a street gang of boy drug dealers who run this city. And while the streets of New York are seen as dangerous and unsavory (Eric, early in the film, is set up with an older white guy in the hopes of some hot, underage sex), the world of the Cocaine Kids is actually depicted as kind of laidback and easy. Eric never feels bad for dealing drugs, and, aside from one character who gets hooked on the drugs himself, there don’t seem to be any real consequences for dealing coke on the streets.
That character who gets hooked, by the way? His name is C. Dickens. Groan.
Eric’s story is paralleled by a peer of his in the form of Luis (Danny Nucci), a poor kid from Jersey who loses his house to a fire, and must deal drugs to stay alive. It’s Luis who ends up loving the lifestyle and the TVs it can buy his tsk-tsking mother (Silvana Gallardo). Luis will be the film’s sacrificial lamb; that is: the character who must die to show the white kid how well off he was before. There’s also a kind of Nancy character around the periphery, who comes to the big city, and, over the course of a week, becomes an underage hooker with a cast on her foot. Also lurking about is a subplot with Eric’s determined mother (Joanna Cassidy) who has come to New York to find her son. Her scenes all consist of her trekking to dirty places and waving her son’s picture in front of people.
The Children of Times Squareplays like a cheesier and slightly more literate version of the 1984 teen hooker drama Angel. It’s a genuine old-timey scare film for Hallmark Channel-watching parents, but doesn’t have any of the actual death and danger and explicit actions that would turn their stomachs. It’s safe. I’m happy to say that it’s not bland, however, unlike much of its TV movie brethren (what was that 2011 one about cyberbullies? I think it was called Cyberbully). The Children of Times Square also has the benefit of being a ripped-from-the-headlines topical picture, and you can find plenty of tie-in documentary films about real teen runaways on the streets of New York. Sadly, all the topicality becomes churlish in the light of the cheese on display. Hanson, despite his propensity for cheesy material, is still a perfectly competent director, and he lends some actual personality to the proceedings. Eric is kind of a boring guy, but Luis and Skater seem to be real kids. Otis is genuinely scary, too.
Most anti-drug films are, ironically enough, much better when you’re stoned out of your gourd. This is a TV movie that’s good enough to watch sober. Other than that, it’s pretty predictable.