This review of The Summer I Turned Pretty was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Living in Los Angeles means I don’t spend a lot of time yearning for summer. Blue skies and sunny days are, climate apocalypse aside, generally a given. As such, long days and hot nights don’t hold much romanticism for me. But when Amazon dropped The Summer I Turned Pretty, their TV adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA series of the same name, they broke through my shell of summer cynicism. Watching Belly Conklin (Lola Tung) live out an idyllic New England summer in the fictional town of Cousins Beach was enough to have me making friendship bracelets, going on walks for ice cream cones, and otherwise romanticizing my summer with the teen idealism the show taps into so well.
Now the show is back for its second season and, if nothing else, it’s immediately clear that its pastel-perfect, summer love atmosphere is better than ever. The show’s greatest strength, to use the technical term, is its vibe. Watching it is similar to lighting a bougie candle or taking an “everything shower.” You’re curating the perfect, idealized experience; the show leans into this with aplomb. The plot of the show boils down to a love triangle between Belly and two brothers: her tortured sad boy crush, Conrad (Christopher Briney) and his younger brother Jeremiah (Gavin Casalengo), who would look right at home making thirst trap POVs for the teens of TikTok. Everyone is photogenic enough to have been plucked from an American Eagle catalogue (conveniently, the show has launched a clothing line in collaboration with the brand, if you really want to commit).
The second season of The Summer I Turned Pretty starts with split timelines. In one, we follow Belly and Conrad immediately after the events of last season as they embark on a fairytale teen romance, complete with long-distance phone calls, late-night road trips, and all kinds of important ‘firsts.’ In the second timeline, a year has passed. Belly has fallen out with both Fisher brothers, and their beloved mother Susannah has passed away, plunging the Fishers and the Conklins into their own grieving processes. As the first timeline shows us how Belly and Conrad fell apart, the second brings together the brothers, Belly, her best friend Taylor (Rain Spencer), and her brother Steven (Sean Kaufman). All who unite to try and save their beloved Cousins Beach vacation home from being sold.
As far as teen romance plots go, it’s not exactly reinventing the wheel. The strength of the series reflects one of the pillars of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (another massively popular adaptation of Han’s YA novels): the teenagers at the centre of these narratives really do feel like actual teenagers. Conrad is not written as the over-the-top bad boy asshole that so often populates these stories (I should know, I’ve ravenously consumed many). His vulnerability is apparent, and you can really buy his behaviour as a direct response to his trauma, rather than it feeling shoehorned in as an excuse. Jeremiah’s frustration and jealousy feel honest for a teenage boy, as do his genuine affection for Belly and concern for his brother. And Lola Tung shines at the centre of The Summer I Turned Pretty, convincingly selling Belly as a girl navigating the epic swells and crushing lows of young love while also exhibiting the insecurities, uncertainties, and outbursts accompanying teenage girlhood.
It’s quite an accomplishment that some of the romantic beats which may read as cheesy or unrealistic to my jaded adult heart mostly play as convincingly sweet and earnest. And what really brings this home, more than anything else, is the music. Music is practically a character in this show. One that the creators of The Summer I Turned Pretty have plumbed the deep, deep depths of Amazon’s coffers to bring to life. The budget for the soundtrack of the promo and the first three episodes alone boggles my mind.
I reacted to the lilting opening notes of Taylor Swift’s invisible string the way today’s studios are desperate for fans to react to the 80th superhero cameo in their latest franchise. One Direction’s Steal My Girl, Olivia Rodrigo’s driver’s license and, at the end of episode 2 (in one of the best sequences so far) Des’ree’s I’m Kissing You make the teen angst of it all utterly infectious. It’s truly wonderful music direction, pulling in Lil Nas X, Lizzo, Aerosmith, and, quite masterfully, Fleetwood Mac to build a soundtrack that sounds exactly how a summer of teen love feels. The songs are iconic and they sell how huge and all-consuming the emotions of teenage love, jealousy, and heartbreak feel.
However, season 2 of The Summer I Turned Pretty is certainly not without its downfalls. Sean Kaufman’s Steven is still enjoyable to watch and Taylor has been given a bigger role, which Spencer takes to well. But this appears to have come at the cost of other secondary characters from the previous season, perhaps most notably Minnie Mills’ Shayla, who has been unceremoniously written off.
Narratively, it’s not momentous. But it does leave the main cast looking significantly more white, idyllic American Eagle-approved tans and all. The show doesn’t focus heavily, if at all, on racial politics, despite having changed Belly and Steven from their origins in the book to be the biracial children of an Asian mother. Whilst it does deal with the grief of losing a parent, the bulk of the show’s conflicts are emotional. It’s pure cotton candy escapism — and it would have been refreshing to see more teenagers of colour take a prominent role in that, alongside Belly and Steven. There’s still time to see if any other characters of colour get to take the spotlight this season, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
In terms of the story, if there’s a significant issue, it’s that the core love triangle feels pretty one-sided at the moment. We’re still in the early days of this season but so far, it feels fairly obvious to everyone except Jeremiah which brother Belly really wants to be with. Perhaps as the season progresses, Jeremiah will get more of a shot. It’ll be interesting to see these dynamics play out, but for now, there’s not exactly a lot of believable suspense regarding which way Belly’s affections lie.
For what it’s worth, I’ll still be tuning in to find out. New episodes of The Summer I Turned Pretty will be released weekly on Fridays. And in the meantime, you can find me making friendship bracelets, wearing summer camp shirts, and blasting the truly banging soundtrack to keep myself in the zone. Because what a fun zone it is.
Solidarity with striking film and television workers: https://freelancesolidarity.org/wga-sag-strike-solidarity/