Becoming Chaz

"Becoming Chaz" casts a zippy, consistently engaging yet tonally inconsistent spotlight on the onetime Chastity Bono (daughter of Sonny and Cher) as he undertakes legal, hormonal and surgical procedures to become a man.

With: Chaz Bono, Jennifer Elia, Cher, Howard Bragman, Michael L. Brownstein, Chesare Bono, Chianna Bono, Mary Bono Mack.

Becoming Chaz” casts a zippy, consistently engaging yet tonally inconsistent spotlight on the onetime Chastity Bono (daughter of Sonny and Cher) as he undertakes legal, hormonal and surgical procedures to become a man. Selected as the first installment of Oprah Winfrey’s new documentary club, the film certainly won’t lack for exposure, and could go a long way toward expediting transgender awareness, though one wishes filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato had tamped down their almost-reflexive instinct toward cheeky humor.

Long a target for tabloid headlines, Bono came out as a lesbian in 1995, though that revelation turned out to be a bit premature. Eventually Bono came to realize he was transgendered, and as the film begins, he’s undergoing hormone treatment and preparing for surgery to remove his breasts. The filmmakers are given a lot of latitude here, bringing in cameras for everything save the operation itself, resulting in a few medical gross-out moments that most auds could likely do without.

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The real drama, however, is entirely domestic, with Bono’s relationship with longtime girlfriend Jennifer Elia forming the film’s moral center. Immensely supportive and clearly Bono’s best friend, Elia is nonetheless a bit perplexed as to how to handle her girlfriend suddenly needing to shave and experiencing all the puberty-like ups and downs that come with testosterone treatment. Equally complicated is Bono’s relationship with mother Cher, who comes to accept his new identity through very gradual steps. (Interestingly, the paternal side of the family — including Bono’s stepmother, Republican Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack — seems to regard the whole thing as a non-issue.)

Producer-directors Bailey and Barbato have always had a sympathetic eye for societal outliers in their previous docs, but they also have a tendency toward camp, and construct this film from their typical palette of fast-moving reaction shots and impish asides. In stark contrast with the infinite vicissitudes of Tammy Faye Messner and the innumerable weirdos who populate “Inside Deep Throat,” however, Bono ultimately just seems like a regular dude — obsessed with videogames and his many pets, a little cranky, a little shy, and most often seen just lounging around his nondescript Los Angeles-area home. Were he not born a woman, and the child of two incredibly famous parents, he would be a rather unlikely subject for a documentary of this type.

Of course, those latter two points make his “regular dude” designation difficult for some to accept, and the film is at its most poignant when it contrasts the quotidian aspects of Bono’s life with the freakshow treatment his reassignment surgery receives in the media. (Archival footage of Sonny singing “Laugh at Me,” crosscut with the likes of TMZ and Howard Stern making predictably moronic jokes, provokes a strong protective instinct in the viewer: The guy really doesn’t deserve this sort of treatment.)

This makes it all the odder when the filmmakers take a cheap dig at the heavily reconstructed Cher, holding a long, silent shot of her weirdly unchanging expression as she waits for the directors to ask her a question — it’s a funny moment, for sure, but it’s also a strange move to pull in the midst of a film that otherwise decries the comfort with which so many of us mock the foibles of the famous.

Tech credits are all pro.

Becoming Chaz

Production: A World of Wonder production. Produced by Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Chaz Bono. Co-producer, Mona Card. Directed by Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Mario Pangiotopoulos, Huy Truong; editor, Cameron Teisher; music, David Benjamin Steinberg; supervising sound editor, Paulette Victor Lifton; re-recording mixer, D.J. Lynch; associate producers, Howard Bragman, Dina Lapolt. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 25, 2011. Running time: 87 MIN.

Cast: With: Chaz Bono, Jennifer Elia, Cher, Howard Bragman, Michael L. Brownstein, Chesare Bono, Chianna Bono, Mary Bono Mack.

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