Ah, summer. Is there anything better when you’re young? The summer spells freedom and fun and is the liminal time between school years that offers opportunities for personal growth and revelations. For Belly Conklin (Lola Tung) and her brother Steven (Sean Kaufman), summer means returning to the picturesque seaside town called Cousins Beach. There, the Conklins meet up with the Fishers and spend the summer together in an idyllic beach house that looks very, very bougie and overflowing with Americana charm. Laurel (Jackie Chung), Belly and Steven’s mom, has been lifelong friends with Susannah Fisher (Rachel Blanchard), and they like to make summer a magical time for their kids, hoping that they’ll become as close friends as they have become.
This summer, Belly has grown up. In a sort of ugly-duckling-turned-swan moment, Belly and her family arrive at Cousins Beach to a surprised Susannah. But, Belly is more concerned about the opinions of Susannah’s son: Conrad (Christopher Briney). Harboring a lifelong crush on Conrad, Belly’s new look instantly captures Conrad’s attention, but it also becomes obvious that his younger brother Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno) has noticed her change as well. It’s slightly caveman-ish to say that the summer Belly becomes a “woman” is the same summer that all the guys seem to nice what was under their noses, but The Summer I Turned Pretty is many things, subtle is not one of them.
Based on a novel series by Jenny Han (known for her other teen girl series To All the Boys), Prime Video’s adaptation of the book series is not quite as immediately charming or as addicting as Netflix’s movie trilogy of To All the Boys. For one, Conrad doesn’t exude quite as much charm as Noah Centineo’s Peter. He spends much of the season brooding and incredibly unhappy, granted this is for a very good reason. Lola Tung’s Belly is suitably sweet, but not as comedic as Lana Condor’s Lara Jean. While it may be unfair to compare the two stories, since they are, at their core, very different tales with different tones, it’s hard not to draw connections because of Han.
The Summer I Turned Pretty is surprisingly more adult than the previous Han adaptation. The love triangle is more angsty, pitting brother against brother, and the issues that the characters have to face are far more daunting. There are clearly very stark socioeconomic differences between the Conklins and Fishers. Although Laurel is a published author, it’s clear that Susannah either comes from money, has a very rich husband, makes way too much money off of her paintings, or some combination of the three. Steven faces the reality that he’s not as well off as some of the new friends that he makes, falling for the pretty, rich girl, Shayla (Minnie Mills). The hurdle they have to overcome is not as simple as miscommunication or petty arguments, it’s a class divide.
While the central love triangle between Conrad, Belly, and Jeremiah is certainly in the spotlight, there are other storylines that offer much more heft. Susannah’s secret, the one that makes this year’s summer especially dear, is a dark cloud looming in the distance. It forces Laurel and Conrad to suffer in secret and eventually throws everything into chaos. The season revolves around Belly becoming a debutante at the local country club. It’s clearly not something that Laurel wants for her daughter, but Susannah is eager to enlist Belly. It’s immediately clear that Susannah views Belly as the daughter she never had. It’s a bit awkward and inappropriate at times. She openly states that Belly is destined to be with one of her sons. She acts as if she and Laurel are raising Belly together. And while there is a sweetness to the idea of two best friends raising their kids together, there is a bit of co-dependency that Susannah seems to have. Whether or not that’s because of her secret or because that’s just who she is is up for debate.
The first season ends very clearly hinting at more to the story and The Summer I Turned Pretty has already been renewed by Amazon Studios. Despite its pitfalls and cliches, the series is addictively enjoyable. For those who love romantic storylines, it’s perfect summertime fodder to gobble up like a tub of popcorn. The heavier moments ground you, but it mimics the style of other teen dramas like One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek, or A Walk to Remember. Even the setting is reminiscent of those stories, though that might make sense since all of those projects were filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s the kind of beautiful, immaculate beach town that you see in magazines. Sure, the expensive homes are a bit removed from reality or the lives of us common folk, but that enhances to more dramatic elements of the show.
With a second season on the way, it’ll be fun to return back to Cousins Beach for more sun, sand, and drama on the horizon.
The entire first season of The Summer I Turned Pretty is now streaming on Prime Video.