Directors Fenton Bailey, left, and Randy Barbato brought their film "Becoming… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
reporting from park city, utah — The last time many of us paid attention to Chaz Bono, he had recently transitioned from a life as a woman to that of a man, and the tabloids and comedians were having a field day. Viewers of Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey's wildly engaging documentary "Becoming Chaz" might be surprised, then, to see the complicated and often touching story behind the late-night snark.
The film, which had its premiere Sunday night at the Sundance Film Festival ahead of its television airing on Oprah Winfrey's OWN Network later this year, depicts Bono, the child of Sonny Bono and Cher, as a someone for whom a sex change was the necessary remedy for a life of depression. And unlike the same decisions by others that end in disappointment or tragedy, this one seems to have been a wise one: Chaz Bono says he's now infinitely happier and more fulfilled, even as his transition has created a fresh set of challenges.
"It's the greatest thing I've ever done in my life. It's the only time I've felt like a complete person," he says in the film, before acknowledging that "it's kind of a weird time for me.... I definitely feel like I'm in the oven now."
He comes across as self-aware, honest (sometimes to a fault), a little rough around the edges but likable.
The outlines of the Chaz story are familiar to many. Three years ago, Chastity Bono began the process of changing genders. She was 39 at the time and had led an unusually turbulent life even by celebrity-offspring standards, battling addiction, the death of a partner, a 1990s coming-out process and the heavy glare of the spotlight that began as a toddler, when she was held in her father's arms in front of a national television audience on "The Sonny & Cher Show."
What is less well known is the story's emotional terrain: As a child, Chastity would go to sleep and dream she'd wake up a boy. Then there were the repercussions of the sex change for him and everyone around him, including his partner, Jennifer Elia, his extended family, his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor and, of course, you-know-who.
In a series of illuminating interactions, perhaps none is more eye-opening than those with Elia, who supports her partner but, among all the hormonal and other changes, must also cope with a relationship that has before her eyes gone from lesbian to heterosexual.
"I feel like I'm falling in love with a twin. We sort of had to get to know each other again," Elia said, adding, "I still can't believe this is my life. But I don't get bored, and I hate being bored."
Filmmaking chroniclers of the taboo ("Inside Deep Throat," "The Eyes of Tammy Faye"), Fenton and Bailey deliver a more emotional documentary than their history or the subject matter would suggest.
While "Becoming Chaz" has its graphic moments — we watch in some detail as Chaz goes through breast removal surgery and several hormone injections — it also throws open a window on the couple's surprisingly normal home life and the challenges that are introduced as the transition progresses.
"We walked in making a film about a transition from female to male," Barbato said in an interview on Saturday several floors above a bustling Main Street in this ski town. "We ended up making a film about a lesbian relationship transitioning to a heterosexual relationship, and a mother-daughter relationship transitioning to a mother-son one."
Indeed, it's impossible to avoid how Chaz Bono's status as the child of an icon compounded the challenges. "When you think about all the things he had to do to make this choice, it does make it a little more than your ordinary sex change," Bailey said.
But even as the film doesn't ignore the reaction of Cher, it doesn't overemphasize it either, offering snippets of what was at the time her first interview about the subject. She seemed to be working through the news as she spoke.
"You've got to do what your heart tells you to do," she says, in a more accepting moment.
Perhaps Barbato and Bailey's most notable choice is not to fetishize or sentimentalize their subject, cleverly turning what could have been a story of the eccentric into a metaphor for change of all types.
"What really surprised us is realizing to what degree we are all trans," Bailey said. "We all have beliefs that may be in direct conflict with the expectations surrounding us."
"Most people will have much more in common with Chaz than they think," Barbato said. "He's kind of an average Joe — a normal guy, really."