Pearl Fryar is an unassuming African-American guy in his 60s living in a small South Carolina town, who spent decades working in a factory and now devotes his time to working in his garden. So why is he the subject of a documentary? Fryar is no ordinary gardener; over the course of a number of years, he’s meticulously pruned the plants in his three-acre garden into striking pieces of abstract art, and in the process attracted national media attention and brought thousands of tourists to the depressed town of Bishopville. Friends, neighbors and admirers all gush over Fryar in A Man Named Pearl, a heartwarming but superficial documentary that’s saved from hagiography primarily by the humility and charm of its subject.
Fryar, the son of a sharecropper, never had any formal training in topiary, and started working with plants merely as a hobby, with the goal of winning the local garden club’s “Yard of the Month” award. Although he’s compared by some to Edward Scissorhands, his works don’t resemble animals or anything concrete; instead they’re impressionistic sculptures that evoke feelings of peace and tranquility in viewers, who come by the busload to see Fryar’s art and to hear him speak on the simple virtues of following your passion. Those virtues are extolled by a range of Fryar’s associates, from the town’s mayor and the head of its chamber of commerce to art historians and college professors.
Some of those people, most notably the booster-ish chamber of commerce leader and a reverend who spouts plenty of pious platitudes, make the same point over and over during the relatively short movie, and directors Galloway and Pierson make only token efforts to explore deeper issues suggested by Fryar’s work and fame. His impact on the Bishopville economy—of which at times he seems to be the sole generator—is played up as inspirational rather than troubling, and the race-relations questions are given only a cursory examination. Still, Fryar himself is so proud of what he’s done and so eager to share it with others that you can easily forgive the filmmakers for sidestepping all other concerns and just saying, “Hey, isn’t this guy awesome?”