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Originally published Friday, August 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"A Man Named Pearl": an expansive soul's remarkable garden

Movie review: "A Man Named Pearl" is a delightful documentary about Pearl Fryar, a sharecropper's son and former factory worker who created, with no formal training, one of the world's most astonishing topiary gardens on his three-acre property in Bishopville, S.C.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"A Man Named Pearl," a documentary directed by Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson. 78 minutes. Rated G. SIFF Cinema, through Thursday.

There's a donation box on the three-acre property that accommodates Pearl Fryar's astonishing topiary garden in Bishopville, S.C. Visitors are not obligated to pay. If a stroll through Pearl's garden leaves them happier than when they arrived, that's ample compensation for the man who turned discarded plants from a local nursery into a horticultural wonderland.

The creators of "A Man Named Pearl" are similarly generous in providing an enriching slice of feel-good Americana that's infectiously upbeat and totally irresistible. Only a heartless cynic would think of Pearl as a crackpot eccentric instead of a genuine folk artist, and even then there's a good chance they'd leave this delightful documentary with a big, beaming smile and an urge to visit Bishopville.

In a segregated town where formerly unwelcoming neighbors feared that "black people don't keep up their yards," Pearl was the first African American to win Bishopville's "Yard of the Month" award. With no formal training, this now-retired factory worker (66 at the time of filming, and looking fitter than many athletes half his age) defied the expectations of expert horticulturists and turned his garden into a dreamscape of abstract topiary.

Visitors arrive by the thousands each year to marvel at the bizarre shapes and swirls of Pearl's living sculptures, the only tourist attraction in a sleepy town that Pearl almost single-handedly rescued from economic extinction. For Pearl and his devoted wife, some fringe benefits are simple (free meals for life at the local Waffle House) and others profound: As the story of "A Man Named Pearl" unfolds, this chronicle of meticulous upkeep becomes a metaphor for the physical and spiritual health of all humankind.

It doesn't take a genius to see parallels between the vitality of Pearl's obsession and the "Field of Dreams" aspect of his wondrous attraction; everything about Pearl is a tribute to harmony of mind, body, spirit and earth. Environmentalists could easily point to Pearl as an example that should be followed if humanity wishes to survive on a life-sustaining planet. In this regard, "A Man Named Pearl" may be the greenest and healthiest film ever made. Apart from subtly acknowledging the bigotry that lingers in Bishopville, it's a film without negatives, and that alone is incredibly refreshing.

On a smaller, less-cosmic scale of appreciation, Pearl's uplifting story is a welcome reminder that any pursuit of growth and nurturing will yield unexpectedly wonderful dividends. For those who are receptive to life lessons from this simple son of a sharecropper, Pearl's legacy will extend far beyond the boundaries of his garden.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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