Just about every movie exploits something -- even if it's only the desire to see movies. "The Children of Times Square," ABC's "Monday Night Movie" at 9 on Channel 7, exploits a basic American parental fear: that our children will run away to the big city and fall in with pushers and perverts.

It happens to Joanna Cassidy as a suburban mother in the film. Her 14-year-old son Eric, played by Brandon Douglas, overhears a conversation between his mother and his stepfather that leads him to believe he is unwanted, and he boards a train for New York. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, a young Hispanic boy named Luis, played with bravado and sensitivity by Danny Nucci, is also destined for Manhattan streets, forced out of his family's shabby apartment by a late-night fire.

The two boys meet when both become members of a gang called the Leopards, actually a band of cocaine dealers and delivery boys operated by a latter-day Fagin, played in scintillating sinister style by Howard E. Rollins Jr. This Fagin, called Otis, even has an Artful Dodger -- a youth named Skater, played by the precociously authoritative Larry B. Scott.

While Cassidy as mom roams New York looking for her son, young Eric escapes the clutches of a boy prostitution ring and falls in with the Leopards, who seem to be leading adventurous lives. As minors, they can be deployed into the streets to sell drugs without risking the same legal consequences adults would face. But inevitably the scene turns ugly and dangerous. Eric finds he has had enough of the underworld, but it demands still more of him.

A police officer to whom the mother appeals for help tells her that 12,000 runaways arrive each year in New York, that many are drawn to Times Square by its sordid excitement, and that if they are on the streets for one week, they might as well be considered lost to mainstream society. The cop is nicely played by Jason Bernard.

Curtis Hanson, who wrote and directed the film, sustains a high level of believability and tension until the melodramatic coincidence that, nonetheless, brings the film to a satisfying action conclusion. The location shooting in New York contributes to a sense of urgent authenticity. One serious complaint, though, is that the death of one of the boys is used rather coldly as a plot point; we see no emotional aftermath of his demise. The city may be cruel, but movies should have hearts.

Michael Shrieve's music is exceptionally kinetic and Robert Elswit photographs New York with a sharp eye for gritty, and grubby, detail. Cassidy makes the mother's dogged perseverance genuine and touching; Rollins is electrically charged. "The Children of Times Square" is a solid piece of work, and of course its moral is well-nigh unarguable: Children should not run away from home but if they do, New York City is the last place they should run to.