Chaz Bono was a pop cultural symbol long before he physically became Chaz: first as Hollywood royalty born to entertainers Sonny and Cher, then a gay-rights activist and now the most famous transgender person in the world. But on Becoming Chaz, a 90-minute documentary that premiered Tuesday on OWN, the symbol becomes human.
Becoming Chaz documents Bono's transition — from Chastity Bono, a "lipstick, dress-wearing, long-haired girl lesbian" (as his famous mother Cher puts it) to a man — and is full of factual information on the biology of such a change. That alone is fascinating, particularly given the openness of the film's famous subject, but the best thing about Becoming Chaz is its discussion of the social effects and implications of changing sex.
This is mostly accomplished through interviews with Bono's family and friends, chiefly Cher and his girlfriend Jennifer Elia. Cher, whose screen time is largely confined to a detached interview, struggles with Bono's transition right down to which pronoun to use to describe her son (after years of calling Chastity "she," switching over to "he" for Chaz proves difficult). While everyone's story has its particularities, Cher's struggle to accept her status-quo-dodging child is somewhat standard parental drama.
What feels distinctly new, though, is the film's exploration of Elia's adaptation to the person who she thought was her girlfriend but turned out to be her boyfriend. "I miss the person I met five years ago," says Elia, and that's not merely a result of Bono's changed appearance but the change in behavior and sex drive that come as a result of hormone treatments. "Under the best circumstances, relationships are tough and when you throw in substance abuse and a sex change, it gets a little bit more complicated," explains Bono at one point. And that complication makes for riveting television.
While Bono's gender is in flux, his reciprocated love for Elia is never a question. At times, their relationship is portrayed in gory detail, like when Elia pops a zit on Bono's back. World of Wonder directing team Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato are masters of quirk, having turned out similarly entertaining doc fare like The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Dark Roots: The Unauthorized Anna Nicole and Party Monster. And, indeed, the quirk runs thick in Becoming Chaz, from a sandwich motif that literally fuels Bono throughout the film to a particularly odd scene, in which RuPaul is invited to Bono and Elia's house to watch Bono play video games. It's like something out of the bedroom of an only child who hasn't yet learned to share.
"If I were 10 and someone was like, 'You are going to be with someone who is female first and then becomes a man,' I'd be like, 'What?'" explains Elia toward the end of the film. "I mean, I still can't believe that this is my life, but it's exciting and I don't get bored and I hate being bored." With its unending capacity to fascinate, it almost feels like Becoming Chaz was made for her.