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Topiary Man 

A Backyard Becomes An Art Gallery In A Man Named Pearl

A Man Named Pearl is about a guy who turns his backyard into a leafy art gallery. No more, no less. Pearl Fryar is a humble, 66-year-old, soft-spoken black man who sculpts topiaries on his 3-acre spread in the small, impoverished town of Bishopville, South Carolina. "He can tame trees like nobody's business," says one local fan in this fawning documentary. And he's right: Fryar's towering, abstract sculptures brighten the otherwise gloomy county. Folks come from all around the world to check out Fryar's garden.

His earliest topiaries were a reaction to an unsuccessful bout of house-hunting. Ironically, he was unwelcome in one neighborhood, because, he was told, "Black people don't keep up their yards." These days, his neighbors admit that they feel so obligated to maintain their lawns that many of them were inspired to create their own green sculptures. The street indeed looks a lot like the one in Edward Scissorhands (Fryar acknowledges that people often refer to him as Johnny Depp's blade-fisted character).

At first, family members and friends thought Fryar was literally crazy. He got his first batch of plants out of a nursery's trash pile and turned foliage that looked like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree into - as one pal says - "elegantly abstract" art. (Is it a coincidence that the movie's jazzy background music occasionally sounds like something the Peanuts kids would stroll around to?)

Much is made about Fryar having no formal training. Almost everyone who is interviewed - gallery reps, preachers, teachers, the manager of the local Waffle House - brings this up. And nobody has a bad word to say about him. Surely, somebody's gotta get a little pissed when Fryar trims his trees late at night.

The filmmakers set out to make a fluff piece about a local hero, and that's exactly what they got in this likable but slight movie.

At one point, a spokesman for the city acknowledges that Bishopville has its share of rednecks. But that's about as deep as A Man Named Pearl gets. Other than that, you're left with a bunch of cool-looking trees.

mgallucci@clevescene.com

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