Dissociative identity disorder, informally known as multiple personality disorder, affects up to 10 percent of United States citizens. This pernicious condition has received a fair amount of screen time in recent features such as Fight Club (1999), Me, Myself and Irene (2000) and Secret Window (2004) but never has its stark dualism been presented in such an aggressively buoyant, deceptively charming fashion as found in this year's Hannah Montana: The Movie. A bleak, disturbing fable packaged as a wholesome musical tale about family and staying true to yourself, it is sweet satire at its very darkest.
Miley Stewart (played with pluck by Miley Cyrus) is a typical teenage outcast. Klutzy and second fiddle to best friend Lilly (Haley Joel "I see dead people" Osment's sister Emily), she is a gawky brunette in a sea of California blondes. Her lackluster social status, coupled with the brutal scars left by her mother's death and her brother Jackson's (Jason Earles) mild retardation—clumsily but cleverly played for laughs—leads Miley to create a fantasy world where she is sun-kissed pop sensation Hannah Montana, whose fabulous lifestyle includes gratis shopping sprees and divalicious cat fights with Tyra Banks (a believable Tyra Banks). When business-minded father Robby Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus) finally takes note of Miley's destructive alter-ego, he whisks her away to Crowly Corners, Tennessee, hoping the rural charms of her family roots will dissipate her condition. But Miley's delusional state has progressed too far, and a third persona emerges, that of an unnamed country hick, whom we'll reference as "Dolly." When Miley/Dolly/Hannah conceals her imaginary lives from hunky love interest Travis (Lucas Till), the pressure threatens to shatter any hope for recovery, and she begins to realize her only option is to reveal her tri-faceted personality. Sadly, the backwards and narrow-minded folks of Crowly Corners encourage and empower Miley to remain closeted, and the film ends with a musical number where the Dolly/Hannah alters entomb Miley and she is hay-ridden off into a illusional, hallucinatory future.
Cyrus's nervy choice to portray the Hannah persona as Asian is daring and commendable, but strays into stereotype with heavily-kohled eyes, a predilection for bright lights and anime-short skirts—although the wardrobe homage to Sailor Moon was spot-on. She does an admirable job with a very tough role, but perhaps is too young to fully portray the depths of the three personalities, all of whom come off as enthusiastic, engaging girls with little going on behind the eyes. I would have loved to see a more accomplished actress such as Natalie Portman or Dame Judi Dench take up such a challenge. The casting of Billy Ray as Miley's father is an intriguing decision. The two have absolutely no father-daughter chemistry, which serves to highlight the alienation of the titular character. His first, quickly-passed-over scene shows him headshakingly staring at Hannah's blonde wig, perhaps hinting at a cross-dressing past, but this subplot is never made explicit.
Using a Rainbow-Brite cheery soundtrack and an pratfall-filled screenplay—courtesy of Cinderella III scribe Dan Berendsen—English director Peter Chelsom displays an acerbic and uncompromisingly black humor as he paints a cheeky face on an utterly devastating story. Even his own countrymen receive a thorough lashing, with an injurious depiction of the British press as doughy, gluttonous, sybaritic paparazzi. Walt Disney Pictures, long known for its candy-sweet productions, takes a bold step toward edgy, darker fare with this subtle, dual-layered film. On the surface, Hannah Montana will be enjoyed by millions of screaming, hyperactive tweens, but the elusive and understated subtext that lurks beneath its PG-rated, poppy veneer is a Freudian feast for the discerning mind.