No doubt Pearl Fryar qualifies as a highly original topiary sculptor, an inspirational human being and a credit to his community. But after hearing this refrain from his neighbors, his pastor, his curator, his friends, his fellow artists, the mayor, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, a nursery owner and assorted passersby for 70-odd minutes, the message begins to pall, particularly since it is unaccompanied by any visible style or overall aesthetic. Pedestrian docu, which opens July 11 at Gotham’s Angelika Film Center prior to limited rollout, lets plenty of grass grow under its feet.
Fryar’s backstory, unaccompanied by archival footage or even many photographs, stresses his humble beginnings: The son of a North Carolina sharecropper, he eventually moved to Bishopville, S.C., to work at a soda can factory. “A Man Named Pearl” attributes Fryar’s topiary career to his difficulty, as an African-American man, buying a house in a white neighborhood, accompanied by the racist remark that black people don’t keep up their yards (a point much stressed in pic’s publicity materials, but greatly downplayed in the docu itself). Fryar set out to win the town’s prestigious Yard of the Month award, and never looked back.
Having no training in topiary gardening, and working with plants from the reject pile at the local nursery, Fryar accomplished all kinds of supposedly “impossible” things because, as he himself succinctly puts it, he had no idea they couldn’t be done. (Unfortunately, none of the other 50 people who exclaim over the fact that he was an autodidact express themselves as wittily.)
Pearl’s garden now consists of 3½ acres of extraordinary freeform abstractions that attract visitors from around the globe. Though filmmakers Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson tarry amid the flora, following Pearl with his chainsaw as he climbs rickety ladders or trims trees by lamplight, their camera claims no privileged freedom to soar above or move through the three-dimensional structures. Indeed, pic looks very much like a protracted man-of-the-week spot on a local newscast.
If the docu can claim an ethos, it may be that of the small, sleepy Southern town where everybody knows everybody, one good deed can blossom into many, and one story of hope can inspire a generation.
Given Fryar’s charm, boundless energy and passion for mentoring, the viewer has no problem believing in the far-reaching power of his positive example. This belief proves harder to swallow, though, when facilely translated into the Chamber of Commerce’s “streetscape project” to attract tourists to Bishopville.