Reality television doesn't get any more real than "Teenage Sex and Fatherhood: Nathan's Tale." This locally produced documentary grew out of a film project by Salt Lake's Nathan Meier, who found out what the real world was like when he and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Jennifer became parents before they were ready.
"Nathan's Tale" (9 p.m., Ch. 7) is a cautionary tale — and a compelling one at that.
"I would hope it would have an effect mostly on teenagers because they're at a time when everything is new," said Meier, the young father and filmmaker who worked with KUED's ace producer Colleen Casto to create the hourlong film. "I mean, I remember being 16 and feeling like so many things were happening — so many weird things. And first sexual experiences and other people talking about things like that."
But, as the Meiers admit in the film, they never gave much thought to the consequences of their actions.
"It's sad and it's really unfortunate because at that age, you don't realize what you're giving up," Meier said. "And you don't realize what you're getting into. I just want people to stop and think about it before they do it. With this project, you get to see the result of some of those choices. Jennifer and myself, we both kind of learned the hard way.
"We now totally advocate sex after marriage. I mean, there's reasons people say things like that. It makes sense. There's diseases. There's emotional repercussions — so many things. Having a kid when you're not ready to. And have it come in a time in your life when it kind of stifles things.
"But at the same time, I think it's got a positive message. We've survived it. I don't regret anything. I'm glad I have (daughter) Dakota. I tend to look at it like — things happen for a reason."
"Nathan's Tale" is an often painfully honest self-portrait. Meier goes into his own upbringing as well as his wife's, their often difficult relationships with each other and with their parents, and the extremely tough time they were having trying to make a marriage and parenthood work on the tightest of budgets.
"When they shot that, we were really, really financially crunched . . . There's such an amazing amount of stress that takes place when you don't have money for food," Meier said. "I mean, we really were going without food quite a bit. We never let Dakota go without food, but Jennifer and I — we weren't starving, but our cupboards were pretty bare. At that time, it was heavy tension. And that (is) kind of what comes across in the documentary."
It's a painfully honest portrait of a young family in turmoil. Nathan and Jennifer are struggling with their relationship, they're struggling with their parents, they are struggling to be parents. It is, as Meier said, "intimate and personal" and "pretty gritty" as they talk about their lives. In addition to the footage Meier shot, the KUED camera crew more or less moved in with Nathan and Jennifer for a time, capturing their daily routine.
Even though he's spent the past several years working on the project, Meier said he can hardly bear to watch himself. (He also serves as the narrator.)
"I love filmmaking," he said. "But it's definitely hard when you're the subject. It's very weird. I definitely will be glad when I'm working on something else that's a little less personal.
"I can't watch it. When you've lived it, it's not entertaining to you. Hopefully, it will be to other people."
And it wasn't always easy for Nathan and Jennifer's parents to be interviewed for the documentary, either. Meier had to persuade his mother, who wasn't comfortable with the situation or the project, to participate.
"She is a very private person. It's difficult for her to do this," he said. "She couldn't bare her soul like we had to on a project like this. And she's not always painted in the best light in the project, which wasn't intentional. It's not like I'm out to destroy my mother. In fact, that's why I wanted her to be interviewed, and I asked her several times, because I didn't want it to be one-sided. But I think she's OK now."
As are Nathan and Jennifer. The intent of "Nathan's Tale" was to show their lives at the time — but things have changed since filming was completed last summer.
"If they were to shoot it now, I think it would be pretty different," Meier said. For one thing, he's been working two jobs, which eased their financial pressures. For another, little Dakota is now a 2 1/2-year-old whose ever-expanding vocabulary amazes her parents.
"I think my relationship with Jennifer has improved since then," Meier said. "And my relationship with my parents has improved."
And, based at least in part on his work on "Nathan's Tale," he has been accepted to the California Institute of the Arts, so the Meiers will be moving in the fall.
"That was one of my big goals. I'd been doing this documentary since two years before KUED got involved," he said. "I hold that responsible for getting me into Cal-Arts."
He's hoping for a career in filmmaking, although not necessarily a career in documentary-making.
"It's funny because prior to this I never even really thought about doing documentaries," he said. "I just started documenting, almost like a visual journal. And then when we found out she was pregnant, I started kind of going with that . . . Really, my goal was just to get into school and kind of take things one step at a time.
"I could see myself possibly doing more documentaries in the future. But I'd mostly like to do narrative pieces. I've got some ideas. I'm just going to kind of see what happens when I get down to school," he said.
And, as hard as things have been — and as much as he would never recommend that anyone else travel the same path he's followed — Meier repeated that he has no regrets.
"Having a child is such an amazing thing. And it's incredibly rewarding," he said. "And the love that I feel for my daughter and I know she feels for me is the purest there is. And I can't imagine regretting that. I certainly wish I could have gone about things better, mostly for Dakota's sake.
"It's wise to meet somebody, fall in love, decide to get married, plan on getting married, have them, kind of establish your lives a little bit and gear up for that. It's definitely what I would think would be a better way of going about it for the child and for the parents."