“Parsley Days” is a daring, honest, and heartfelt story set in Halifax, Canada, that juggles bicycling, first love, Polaroids, and herbal birth control. It’s also the first film in recent memory to feature a two-wheeled Schwinn decked out in a wool sweater, looking like a metallic skier ready to tackle Sun Valley. A strange and original little gem that is sneaking across the country at film festivals, “Parsley Days” looks at the twisted emotions which sprout out during that awkward transition between high school and the scary never-never land where one chooses between higher education or flipping burgers. Its heroine, Kate, is a bicycle maintenance teacher whose life swerves through some unexpected territory when she becomes pregnant.
The film follows Kate and her circle of oddball friends as she confronts this crisis, with nary an automobile in sight. Bikes are the preferred mode of transportation in “Parsley Days”, and there’s a reason for it. “I wish more people would ride bikes, and I’m a huge biking advocate,” admits the film’s director, Andrea Dorfman, while sipping tea in a Capitol Hill coffee shop during The Seattle International Film Festival, where “Parsley Days” is making its northwest debut. “But the bikes are also symbolic of a certain time of life, after high school when people are going to college or working, and don’t have enough money to buy cars. They’re part of a bike culture. It’s sort of a leading time of life – one day all your friends are riding bikes, and the next day they’re driving cars. People go on, they make more money, and they leave this phase. It’s part of our society. With ‘Parsley Days,’ I was very interested in that time of life when everyone rides bikes.
“Meanwhile,” she adds with a grin, “it was certainly easier to shoot a low budget film with no cars in it.”
Like Kevin Smith with Clerks, and Robert Rodriguez with “El Mariachi,” Dorfman set out with only a shoestring budget to tell her story of Kate, a young woman driven to chowing down on parsley in the hope of inducing an herbal abortion. But wait – an herbal abortion? This isn’t a subject that the conservative Far Right will champion, and a far less certain commercial prospect than tales of trash-talking convenience store attendants or south of the border crime-fighters. Meanwhile, the movie’s pregnant protagonist doesn’t waffle in her decision. She’s determined to follow through with her choice, with no ifs, ands, or buts.
Dorfman is equally unflinching in her quest to create a realistic portrayal of someone in this dilemma. “I wanted to make a film that would chronicle a woman’s journey of falling out of love,” she explains, “with the added pressure of being pregnant – as if breaking up isn’t hard enough.”
Taking to mind “Parsley Days”‘ unconventional story, it’s no stretch to assume that Jerry Bruckheimer wasn’t knocking down Dorfman’s door to produce the film. The budget was tight without any mainstream backing, and the young Canadian director pulled off this first feature-length film for slightly over $65,000 dollars. Financing came in the form of an arts council grant for $50,000, and Dorfman also received $15,000 from Telefilm, a federal funding agency for filmmaking. “Telefilm basically make an investment,” she explains, “and they own part of the film. It was such a small amount, however, that they didn’t demand any creative control at all. The rest I subsidized myself.”
Take away the controversial abortion subtext, and “Parsley Days” is, at heart, a classic coming of age film about leaving a relationship. Kate (the stoic-faced Megan Dunlop) is a complex character, and not entirely likeable, as she attempts to end her lengthy coupling with boyfriend Ollie. A birth-control counselor dubbed “The King of Contraception” by his female clientele, Ollie would seem to be the perfect love interest. Kate’s friends, including herbal guru Chloe (Marcia Connolly), Lila (Marla Mclean), and lesbian artist Pauline (Shannon Cunningham), all sing the suitor’s praises, while he unashamedly announces his love for her at any given opportunity. Even so, Kate is unimpressed. She’s fallen out of love.
After discovering that she’s pregnant, Kate hides the news from Ollie while playing a series of rather underhanded mind-games with her entire social circle. Meanwhile, “Parsley Days” later reveals that Ollie has been harboring a disturbing secret of his own. The movie has a kitschy style of Melrose Boulevard fashions and nerdy outcasts that’s coated in youthful ambivalence and uncertainty. As played by Dunlop, Kate is a sullen, introverted woman at a crossroads. Not wanting to wait the three weeks required to have a clinical abortion, she has taken to devouring the green herb of the title at any given opportunity to induce an earlier one. Whether Kate is reclined on a lake-top inner tube, collapsing into an evening bathtub, or lounging at a dining table with friends, the parsley is an omniscient appendage. “Once the parsley was introduced,” confirms Dorfman, “I put it into every scene. Other than two scenes with Ollie, she’s always eating parsley in some way or another.”
Meanwhile, Dorfman’s debut film is lovingly drenched in reds and greens. One scene has Kate thrift-shopping with Lila, another young woman in love for the very first time with musician Jack (Kenneth Wilson-Harrington), and Kate’s blazing red outfit is only matched by the burning, crimson tint of a dressing room door that looms behind her. Meanwhile, a later scene shows a cluster of parsley-filled canning jars perched on a window sill, appearing like some organic lava lamp pulsating in hallucinatory green hues. “There’s definitely a color scheme to the movie,” admits Dorfman, “with green and red being the symbolic ones. Green, because of the parsley, and red, because it’s so characteristic of love, and the heart.”
Other creative flourishes include still shots, which appear in freeze frame during scenes in which Lila and Jack share kisses and immortalize the moments with Polaroid snapshots. This “smooch and snap” ritual is something Dorfman can relate to. “I do a lot of photography,” reveals the Halifax native, who worked as a camera assistant on a number of Canadian shorts, experimental films, and music videos before jumping to feature length ventures. “I have gone out with someone where we’ve kissed and taken a picture. Sort of a cheesy, romantic moment.”
Another scene takes a simple idea – Kate and Ollie perched upon opposite ends of a seesaw – and conveys it through a montage of separate body parts. Feet donned in New Balance sneakers push off of the ground, and torsos rise and fall with the motion of the occupied teeter totter. It’s a unique spin on a basic image. “I really like body part shots,” confesses Dorfman, “that cut people’s heads off, or show their feet separate from the rest.” Coming to the realization that she’s being interviewed in Seattle, the Nike capital of the world, Dorfman laughs at her filmed foot fetish. “Maybe someone will ask me to do shoe ads after seeing this. Actually, New Balance gave us clearance to use their shoes in that scene, then they sent us several free pairs.” (Meanwhile, Blue Easy Pregnancy Tests and Durex Condoms also allowed their products to be featured throughout the film, with the latter tossing in a few boxes of free prophylactics to the film crew as a fringe benefit.)
Such cinematic touches guide Kate’s tale down its bittersweet path, as does some perceptive, familiar dialogue that’s bound to have viewers nodding in familiarity. For instance, there’s the scene where Kate cools off in a lake, watching Ollie on the shoreline. “If he waves, we’ll stay together,” she murmurs to herself. Later, when the two lovers straddle opposite ends of the seesaw, she broadcasts an internal thought that’s heard only by filmgoers: “If he walks away soon, we’re going to break up.” Kate’s creating of these mental fortune cookies to help her make decisions is a telling trademark of young adulthood. “I think humans are incredibly superstitious,” Dorfman says of the scene. “We blame a lot of what happens to us on fate, and are always looking for signs. I think that’s common during that particular stage of life, too – but I’d like to think that we get beyond that and don’t leave as much of things up to signs and faith. But at times like those shown in the movie, people look to signs to help them make their decisions.”
Another accurate burst of wordplay has Kate’s love-drunk friend proclaiming her love for a boyfriend by proudly stating, “I’m using his name as my e-mail password!” Dorfman sees such phrases as “all these little ways that I think we explain how ‘in love’ we are. I do a lot of recording little bits of peoples’ dialogues, and really study people,” reveals Dorfman, explaining how she breathed such vivid life into her script. “There are definitely pieces of different friends and people I’ve met in all of “Parsley Days”‘ characters. It’s a function of being a writer, and an observer of human life. Each character has an element of me in them, too, and as a writer, one can’t avoid that. They’re extrapolated from your world and infused with a little bit of you as an individual”
The inventor of this film’s neurotic stew of personalities is quick to point out that none are based on actual living, breathing people. Not Chloe (Marcia Connolly), the redheaded herbalist who initially turns Kate on to her herb of choice. Not Ollie (Michæl Leblanc), who shuns the advances of admiring women who approach him daily for birth control advice, dutifully throws surprise birthday parties for his main squeeze, and preaches the virtues of marriage, children, and everything family. And certainly not Dorfman, who denies that her protagonist is based on autobiographical experiences.
“I had a friend who was studying to be a midwife,” Dorfman reminisces, “and she was giving all of her friends this publication called “Hot Pants Do-it-Yourself Gynecology,” sort of an independent magazine that had all these herbal remedies and included a chapter on parsley. I talked with other friends who were studying similar things when I did research on the film, and found a lot of stuff on the internet. But I’ve never actually met anyone like Chloe. Occasionally, I’ve had acquaintances come up to me and say that they know an old boyfriend of mine that the Ollie character was based on. But that’s not true. And it’s definitely not autobiographical, any more than the fact it’s a story about first love and breaking up, experiences I’ve gone through.”
As for the bicycle dressed in a red knit sweater, which shows up as a gift given to Kate from her bicycle students as their class wraps up, there’s a life experience that shaped that bizarre image as well. “I used to have a friend who was part of a coalition in Toronto, that promoted bike riding. She was involved in a project where all these artists were given store fronts, and bicycles, and were told to sculpt something from the bike frame, but keep it functional. One of the artists was a knitting artist, and she knitted a sweater for her bike. That image has always stuck with me.”
In addition such positive attributes as attention to character details and exposure of human truths so common to post-adolescent life, “Parsley Days” also has its faults and rough edges. Kate’s flirtations with a “slow student” from her bicycle maintenance class look like something from an After-School Special, as the supposed stud lurks around on his bike, looking like Leif Garrett might if he’d spent his teen years as a stalker and not a teen idol. On occasion, the audio clarity of the film leaves something to be desired, as one struggles to follow conversation from a hallowed theater seat. Many of these shortcomings are merely the trapping of Dorfman’s low budget, and they often project a messy, warts-and-all reality into the film that might have been lost with a glossier approach.
Will audiences connect with Kate’s troubled romantic dilemma, or will “Parsley Days”, which has yet to find a U.S. distributor, prove too real and not slick enough to appease an audience weaned on Titanic and Pearl Harbor? Time will tell. One thing is for certain, however. Even with a smaller canvas to work with than James Cameron, Dorfman can attest to the occupational hazards of making even a low-key film like “Parsley Days”. “For the seesaw scene,” she laughs, “I was sitting on the opposite end from the actress who plays Kate, and I was strapped on with a little harness. As I filmed her rising into the air, I started descending, the harness came undone, and I fell back onto the ground! The scene originally ended with the camera pointing up into the trees! It didn’t end up in the final film, however.”
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