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TELEVISION REVIEW

‘Becoming Chaz’ captures a complex transition

Chaz Bono (center) is presented with a cake by his girlfriend, Jenny Elia (left), in “Becoming Chaz,’’ a documentary of Bono’s gender reassignment. Chaz Bono (center) is presented with a cake by his girlfriend, Jenny Elia (left), in “Becoming Chaz,’’ a documentary of Bono’s gender reassignment. (Oprah Winfrey Network)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / May 10, 2011

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“Becoming Chaz’’ is remarkably multifaceted. Most of all, the new documentary about Chaz Bono, formerly Chastity Bono, is a chronicle of gender reassignment. But it is also a touching reminder of the endless process of coming out that we all undergo — not just as gay or transgender, but as ourselves. It’s a glimpse into the often cold, exploited world of the child of celebrities — Chaz is yesterday’s Suri Cruise. And it’s a love story, an intimate profile of a relationship challenged by life changes.

“Becoming Chaz,’’ which premieres tonight at 9 on OWN, is all of those things, as well as a gossipy trip into Chaz’s family history and the feelings of his mother, Cher, about his transformation. And yet it all hangs together quite nicely, as the story behind a story that has wound its way into entertainment headlines for a few years now. No matter what you think of Chaz Bono’s decision to transition from female to male, you will probably be fascinated by his arc. It’s both dramatic and unique, from the sometimes graphic material about his double mastectomy to his self-revelation in the media limelight.

The documentary was directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, and it unfolds with a careful balance between the big gender issues and the more reality TV-styled details of Chaz’s days with his girlfriend, Jenny Elia. Indeed, Barbato and Bailey are prolific reality producers, as well as the directors of documentaries such as “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,’’ and they know how to depict Chaz’s domestic life in a few telling scenes. “Becoming Chaz’’ does follow Chaz to clinics, hospitals, seminars, and finally, a support group for transgender children and their parents; but the movie is also filled with casual footage of Chaz meeting with his addiction sponsor, of Chaz visiting his stepmother, Mary Bono Mack, and his half-siblings, and of Chaz and Jenny’s home, which is filled with dogs and cats.

At the beginning of “Becoming Chaz,’’ Jenny comes across as uncomfortable and inarticulate. “It’s gonna be, like, whoa,’’ she says about Chaz’s upcoming breast removal. But her character emerges gradually, and she becomes altogether sympathetic. She helps Chaz with the nitty-gritty, emptying the drains that are on his chest after surgery, while she deals with her own loss. For Chaz, the mastectomy means “I won’t have those things anymore on my body,’’ he says with relief. For Jenny, who helps Chaz with the testosterone shots, the surgery essentially leaves her living with a man after years as a lesbian.

Jenny resents some of the new qualities in Chaz that she identifies as typically male, such as “stubbornness’’ and “the need to be right.’’ She says, “I miss the person I met five years ago.’’ Interestingly, she does not complain about Chaz’s physical transformation; her problems revolve around the way his personality has altered, mostly due to the testosterone. A recovering alcoholic, Jenny also faces issues of sobriety in the middle of Chaz’s changes.

Cher, meanwhile, struggles with her own conflicted response to Chaz’s transition. She is only in a few segments of “Becoming Chaz,’’ talking to the camera about her discomfort, and in a clip from “Late Show With David Letterman,’’ trying with only intermittent success to use the male pronoun in reference to Chaz. But her presence is powerful, as we see the gay icon coming up against her own emotional resistance. She never comes off as a hater, but she stays away from Chaz after his surgery, and she wishes he would not go public about it on shows such as “Entertainment Tonight.’’ She is working it through in her own way. The only time we see Cher and Chaz together — outside a movie premiere — Cher seems stiff and hurried.

Ultimately, the movie isn’t trying to make an argument for Chaz. “Becoming Chaz’’ is not a debate; it’s a group portrait, with flaws and with sweet flourishes, too. There’s a moment toward the end, when Chaz and Jenny are in the back of a limo on the way to an awards ceremony, and he’s dressed in a conservative tie and jacket. While Jenny fixes the handkerchief in his pocket, he just looks like such a dude, like a junior Kevin James. The center of the storm blowing around him, he is comfortable in his own skin.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

BECOMING CHAZ

On: OWN

Time: Tonight, 9-10:30