December 08, 2008 12:00 PM

The last time Britney Spears gave the public an in-depth look at her private life, she was an impulsive, freewheeling newlywed with a self-produced reality series, aptly titled Britney & Kevin: Chaotic. Cut to three years later, and everything has changed. She’s a single mom with a highly controlled life—the consequence of her January breakdown. “It’s bad. I’m sad,” she says tearfully in a riveting new MTV documentary. Life, she complains, is “too in-control. There’s no excitement. There’s no passion.”

The revelations are a small but significant part of the 90-minute film Britney: For the Record (premiering Nov. 30), which chronicles three months of the pop star’s life, including the morning of her appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards in September. “At the end of the day, she wanted to make sure that this thing was very open and honest,” her longtime manager Larry Rudolph tells PEOPLE. “And it was.”

In between scenes of Spears’ day-to-day life—her dad, Jamie, making her cheese grits; recording her new album Circus; shopping with her assistant—she candidly answers off-camera questions from director Phil Griffin on topics ranging from her life (“I don’t see it as being weird”) and loves, to her loneliness, which she blames for her troubles. “I totally lost my way,” says Spears. “I lost focus, I lost myself.” Frustrated with her current overprotected life under her father’s conservatorship, she laments, “Even when you go to jail, there’s always a time that you know that you’re going to get out.” Rudolph, who originally wondered what Spears might do and say in the film, notes, “You look into her eyes and you hear her explain certain things, and you just get what happened and why it happened.”

Though Spears says, “I’ve definitely grown up—big time,” her tears (and onscreen nail-biting) make it hard not to wonder if she can handle the stress of her comeback. At a Nov. 20 taping in L.A. for the preshow that will air with the documentary, the singer, according to an audience member, was “very moody” and “nervous” during an interview with host Damien Fahey. She curtly answered questions, and when it came time to discuss her album, she told Rudolph, “I’m done,” and left.

Her manager, however, isn’t worried. “She’s definitely ready,” he insists. “She identifies herself with her career in a lot of ways, and getting her career back is a great therapeutic thing for her, just like it would be for anyone.” Still, promoting an album means being separated from her kids, Preston, 3, and Jayden, 2, who are seen celebrating Halloween in the film. On Nov. 24 Spears left for a weeklong European promotional tour of her album (which comes out on her 27th birthday, Dec. 2), but will make up for the lost time with the boys when she returns. “Balancing her life with her kids is an incredible priority—the No. 1 priority in terms of how I operate with her,” says Rudolph. As for the future, he remains cautiously optimistic. “There’s no such thing as an overnight turnaround,” he says. “We all saw what we saw in her life a year ago, and she’s come incredibly far.”

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