‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ (Season 1) Review: A Distracting Summer Escape Doesn’t Quite Work

After the success of the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before film series, Jenny Han adapted her own novel The Summer I Turned Pretty about a young girl who navigates post-adolescence, romance, and other life-changing events over the summer of her 16th birthday. A coming-of-age, multigenerational drama that explores the struggles of growing up and the beautiful relationships between mothers and their children.

The series follows Belly (Lola Tung), who has spent every summer of her life at the Cousins Beach with her mother, Laurel (Jackie Chung) and brother, Steven (Sean Kaufman). They stay at Laurel’s best friend, Susannah’s (Rachel Blanchard) beach house and grew up with her sons, Conrad (Christopher Briney) and Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno). Right before her 16th birthday, Belly transforms from a dorky, bespectacled child into a vivacious young woman, who wears contact lenses now. She hopes that her new image might attract Conrad, who she has had a crush on for years. Unfortunately, his reaction is unexpected; despite engaging in a tradition that brought the two families together for over a decade, Conrad is distant and moody, especially compared to Jeremiah and Steven.

Meanwhile, Belly’s new look boosts her confidence and brings in multiple compliments from the people around her. Susannah suggests that the blossoming young girl should take part in the debutante ball and after a few days of hesitation, she accepts. Belly’s life is turned around when she journey’s into a new world of glamour, clothes, image, and status. She finds herself in a love triangle, where both of the brothers are competing for her attention and an invitation to the debutante ball. Conrad and Jeremiah start to see that there are more of their memories with Belly and begin to see her in a different light.

There are many frustrations within The Summer I Turned Pretty’s narrative. A sense of a love triangle is presented but it is only revealed much later in the series. In the first half of the season, it tells that Belly has been in love with elder brother Conrad since she was a young kid but suddenly, he’s moody and distant which throws her off. Jeremiah, the younger brother, is energetic, sunny, and incredibly flirty towards anyone. During the second half, the viewer learns that Jeremiah has had a crush on Belly for a long time, too. However, the problem is that it feels sudden. There are moments where Jeremiah looks at her with earnestness and care, and it’s obvious that Belly has never felt the same towards him. Maybe a proper build-up of Jeremiah’s crush on Belly would have sufficed, instead of dumping the reveal altogether, but perhaps the reason why their romance doesn’t really make sense is the lack of chemistry.

Tung holds the entire series together portraying Belly’s charm and awkwardness. She has a magnetic screen presence and the viewer feels drawn to her and invested in her story. However, while Tung can hold a strong performance, her male counterparts struggle to form romantic chemistry between Belly and the brothers. While the series is known for building a friendship before a romantic relationship, it seems it’s much better when it focuses on the former. Belly’s year-long crush on Conrad is awkward to watch since they don’t have enough time together to convince the viewers of their strong chemistry. The series doesn’t always have everything right, but not being able to build a sufficient romantic connection and chemistry between the cast makes it difficult to watch.

The Summer I Turned Pretty also fails the Bechdel Test. Belly spends the majority of the seven-episodic show only discussing Conrad and Jeremiah. Her entire life revolves around them and that is the problem of a love triangle, which only shows the main character being in conflict with themselves on who they should choose. Neither Conrad nor Jeremiah are good options for Belly, who deserves much better. Their chemistry was not convincing enough due to Jeremiah only being a friend to her, and vice versa, while Conrad is more secretive and closed-off.

One of the highlights of the show is that it shows a rare friendship between two middle-aged women. Laurel and Susannah’s friendship goes way back to when their kids were really young. They’ve been through a divorce and cancer together, and everything is so much better when it’s the five of them in the beach house. The series gives room for Laurel and Susannah’s individual conflicts to develop on-screen and paints an image of the ups and downs of a decades-long friendship. It’s wholesome to see Susannah encouraging Laurel to go out and date people, and Susannah living a carefree life with her husband not present in her life currently.

The Summer I Turned Pretty is a mixed bag, but there are a lot of tear-jerking moments that are worth it. While the show has been greenlit for a second season, it would be interesting to see where the series goes next, in terms of the chemistry between the characters and the narrative mishaps. The show is summer escapism for anyone who wants to deal with heartbreak, forge new friendships and the importance of family. Hopefully, in the next season, Belly removes herself from the confines of romance between the brothers that don’t deserve her sunshine.

Edited by: Raayaa Imthiyaz

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