Images deceive in Great Photo, Lovely Life: Facing a Family’s Secrets. Rachel Beth Anderson and Amanda Mustard’s documentary chronicles the latter’s clan and, in particular, her grandfather Bill Flickinger, who spent many days and nights raping and molesting young girls—and largely getting away with it. A film in which happy snapshots and home movies conceal a horrible secret in much the same way that Bill’s relatives kept his monstrousness hush-hush, it’s a gut-wrenching saga about illuminating the darkest corners of private lives, and about the difficulty—and perhaps unjustness—of genuine Christian forgiveness.
Amanda places herself and her mother, Debi, front and center in Great Photo, Lovely Life (Dec. 5, on HBO). At the film’s outset, they visit Bill at his current senior living residence, where he’s thrilled to see the duo. In a dining hall, more than one woman greets and says kind words about Bill, and his gregarious and effusive personality suggests why he’s considered a welcome part of the community.
Back in his room, however, things take a decidedly different turn, courtesy of Amanda’s questions about the prior accusations levied against him. Bill admits that he did fight his urges because he knew they were wrong, but then follows up that candid admission with an equally frank and revealing qualification: “It seemed like, that some of these little girls, for example, would almost throw themselves at me. Now that might sound a little stupid, but they wanted to learn things. And they were experimental. And to me, it was too much of an open temptation. And I fell into it.”
As if that weren’t unnerving enough, he continues about one innocent target, “We had quite an engagement, so to speak. We were very close, sexually. Even though she was little. And she loved it.”
Bill, it turns out, is an inveterate pedophile who abused scores of young girls during his life, and Great Photo, Lovely Life serves as Amanda’s attempt to grapple with that legacy and its corrosive effects on her family. Central to that project is speaking with Bill and others alongside Debi, who was also seemingly one of Bill’s victims. So too was Amanda’s sister Angie, who lived with her grandparents Bill and Salesta (whom Bill called Lois, because he hated her birth name) at a young age, and who was routinely assaulted. Angie doesn’t take part in her mother and sister’s trips to see Bill, but she does participate in the documentary, discussing the lasting impact of her ordeal as well as the bitterness she feels toward her mother for placing her in Bill’s care when it was known—by Debi, and by Salesta—that he was a wanton predator.
Guilt, blame, and shame are all key components of Great Photo, Lovely Life, and Anderson and Mustard don’t shy away from any of it, even when it leads to discord and schisms. Debi and Angie’s thorny relationship is emblematic of a situation in which many people are both responsible for perpetuating Bill’s pedophilic reign of terror, and casualties of it. For Amanda, learning about her grandfather’s sordid history requires an outright investigation, since she grew up in a household that spoke little about what he’d done. Apparently, Debi’s own upbringing was similarly shrouded in secrecy, thanks to a father who obviously didn’t cop to his many misdeeds, and a mom who refused to acknowledge them out loud. Moreover, Salesta did nothing about them, thereby leaving her own children and grandchildren to suffer at his hands.
This is a terrible legacy, and Great Photo, Lovely Life is an arduous journey into the grimiest depths of human behavior. Amanda’s sleuthing turns up multiple convictions that resulted in no jail time, as well as a story about Bill destroying his reputation in Bradford, Pennsylvania (where he worked as a chiropractor), and moving to Florida with Salesta to roam the state in an RV, selling vacuum sealers and rubber stamps at craft markets. He was a fiend with a friendly face, and camcorder movies that he shot during his time in the Sunshine State illustrate his compulsive fondness for young females. A letter from Salesta to Angie indicates that she knew all about her husband (no surprise, given that his flight from justice turned her into a nomad), and that she tried her best to manage his “ugly addiction.” Yet she never turned him in, nor did much of anything to stop him from indulging his appetites.
Awash in old pictures and film clips of Bill and his relatives, Great Photo, Lovely Life gazes at the past as a means of exposing the truth behind the lie. Cheery, wholesome facades mask rot and cruelty, and they’re partly composed of Christian devoutness. Prayers and comments about God pepper Anderson and Mustard’s documentary, as does considerable talk about forgiveness, with Bill stating, “There’s no sin that can’t be forgiven. Except blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” Debi later chimes in with, “If we don’t forgive somebody, we’re held accountable for that too.” The underlying implication is that Amanda and company should pardon Bill in their hearts as a means of healing themselves and, just as importantly, reaching the pearly gates. As such, the family’s faith is implicated as a mechanism for letting Bill off the hook—literally and emotionally.
Amanda bristles at that notion at the conclusion of Great Photo, Lovely Life, contending that her anger is part of how she holds Bill liable for the wreckage he’s wrought. Her film does likewise, affording a platform for a few of Bill’s victims to speak openly about their traumas and, in the end, to virtually confront him about his villainy. The desire to sweep things under the rug, to move past them with self-serving platitudes about forgiveness, and to eschew personal culpability via deflection tactics are all pinpointed as contributing factors to a nightmare that, even with Bill’s demise, continues to plague this family. Anderson and Mustard expose the intricacies of this harrowing dynamic with empathy and sensitivity. Nonetheless, it’s a reckoning that ultimately cuts like a knife, leaving no one—dead or alive—unscathed.