Pearl Fryar, a self-taught topiary sculptor in small-town South Carolina, turns out to be an unexpectedly inspirational figure. His family, friends and neighbors enthuse over his serene demeanor and resolute work ethic, and their warmth and enthusiasm set the tone for A Man Named Pearl, a low-budget documentary that seems motivated to live up to Fryar's example for kindness and artistry.
A sharecropper's son and factory employee for 36 years, Fryar turned scrap plants into works of art, despite having no topiary training beyond watching a three-minute demonstration at a hardware store. Arborists and art critics alike use terms like "miraculous" to describe his sprawling, meticulously appointed garden acreage, which has offbeat geometric shapes worthy of a Dr. Seuss book. Fryar reveals a humble sense of humor, like the way he describes devoting years to make a topiary "165" to mark his address, only to have the street number officially changed to "145." "Can you imagine changing a six to a four?" he laughs.
Directed by Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson, A Man Named Pearl offers a more realistic portrait of the rural South's charms – and its problems – than you find in any 10 mainstream movies or television shows. Interviewees, like a garrulous Chamber of Commerce hotshot, provide laid-back case studies of Southern conversation. The film doesn't ignore racial tensions, however, and relates (third-hand) an account that young Fryar couldn't move onto a white street out of the stereotype that "He wouldn't keep up his yard." When he settled into his new neighborhood, he vowed to win the local "Yard of the Month" competition, and proved so successful that the cash-strapped town has become an international tourist attraction.
A Man Named Pearl doesn't break stylistic ground, and the lack of overt conflicts makes the film feel like a stretch even at 77 minutes. Nevertheless, Galloway and Pierson uncover a wealth of charming stories, like the time Fryar planted a spiral topiary outside the local Waffle House and subsequently received an offer of free meals for the rest of his life. Normally, "feel-good" movies are the most contrived and artificial products Hollywood offers, so it's utterly refreshing to find one that feels real in every respect.
Vanaja, a fictional film set on nearly the exact opposite side of the world, shares with A Man Named Pearl an appreciation of artistic dedication and sacrifice. The title character of Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) is an adolescent girl in an Indian village, where her fascination with traditional Kuchipudi dancing collides with obstacles of gender and caste.
Indian director Rajnesh Domalpalli (who wrote the film while studying at Columbia University) presents engrossing solo dance sequences that unfold not as Bollywood-style musical numbers but as lessons or small public performances. The intricate choreography, swirling costumes and unique arm movements all cultivate appreciation for the art form's traditions. The daughter of an alcoholic fisherman, Vanaja gets a job in the household of a former dancer turned formidable landowner (Urmila Dammannagari), who grows to appreciate the young girl's spirit and teaches her to dance.
Bhukya appealingly captures the girl's spark and sexual precociousness, but those attributes can be problems in a culture with rigid class restrictions. Vanaja is initially attracted to her landlady's hunky son (Karan Singh). But when he takes advantage of her, Vanaja's future seems doomed.
Vanaja features credible details about rural politics and superstitions, but the characters prove to be increasingly annoying. Many of them waffle throughout the film, acting resolute in one scene then changing their minds a few minutes later, and the acting and writing lack the subtlety to take advantage of their divided feelings. Vanaja's human conflicts seldom match the dance sequences, but maybe that suits the girl's dilemma: Sometimes art cannot transcend society's problems, even though it should.
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