Great Photo, Lovely Life is a powerful documentary. Excellent filmmaking and storytelling support a heartbreaking but vital story, making it a worthwhile watch.
After nearly two hours of investigation, documentation, and conversation about the crimes and impact of Bill Flickinger, Great Photo, Lovely Life: Facing A Family’s Secrets ends with white words on a black screen: “This film is dedicated to anyone carrying the weight of the secrets that they shouldn’t have to keep.”
Great Photo, Lovely Life is a documentary directed by Amanda Mustard and Rachel Beth Anderson, which uncovers the sexual abuse crimes that Mustard’s grandfather, Flickinger, committed over the span of decades—largely with no consequences. The HBO original documentary is one of the year’s most vital films, as it sheds light on the darkness that many people harmed by sexual abuse face. It is unique in that Amanda, her mother Debi, and others in the family interact with and challenge Bill Flickinger (who was still alive at the time of filming) on the abuse he committed within his family and through his chiropractic practice. The film is heartbreaking and enraging.
A refreshing creative choice is that Amanda and Debi document their reaction to footage they filmed earlier. The viewer sees the original footage, plus the visceral and honest assessment of those involved as Amanda replays and edits along the way. These conversations lead to intense, vulnerable, and even dissenting moments between them, which only bolsters the deeply personal and long-lasting impact of Flickinger’s crimes.
It is no surprise that the documentary is visually and cinematically incredible. Amanda Mustard is a photojournalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic and the New York Times, and Rachel Beth Anderson is a cinematographer known for First to Fall (2014) and E-Team (2014). Their collaboration in the making of this film produces a first-rate visual experience. Their use of family photos and home videos is creative and aesthetically pleasing. The film is edited well, but does not distract from the jolting central story.
Especially prescient is the footage of Bill Flickinger recalling some of the heinous things he did. He committed sexual crimes against children and minors for decades, and faced very little retribution. Even more jarring is Flickinger’s insistence that, based on his religious beliefs, God will forgive him for the havoc he wrought. The documentary frames his struggle with this question well. At times, he seems somewhat remorseful; other times, he’s unwilling to seek forgiveness whatsoever.
Great Photo, Lovely Life reignites a much-needed conversation about the correlation between religious belief and perpetuated sexual crimes. Flickinger and others in the documentary are religious and use Christian ideas to minimize, if not defend such actions. Mustard is especially vocal against such excuses for injustice, providing the documentary with a balanced, though tense framing of justice, morality, and the consequences of such contemptible acts.
As I watched Great Photo, Lovely Life, my stomach knotted. My heart raced, my fingernails burrowed into my palms. The hard part about this story is the realization of how common this crime is, and how detrimental it is against a host of victims. Amanda Mustard and all involved in this documentary have shown bravery and strength in making this film. They boldly tell their personal stories of sexual assault and crime, and the result is a powerful step in the direction of protecting women and children from dangerous men. Excellent filmmaking and storytelling support a heartbreaking but vital story, making Great Photo, Lovely Life a worthwhile watch.
Great Photo, Lovely Life will debut on HBO on December 5, 2023 (10:00-11:55 p.m. ET/PT) and be available to stream on Max.