Amazon’s Uneven Jenny Han Series – The Hollywood Reporter
As a coming-of-age story, Amazon’s The Summer I Turned Pretty is a cut above. Tenderly written and endearingly acted, it’s sensitive to the subtle but irreversible shifts in self-perception that come with late adolescence — and at the same time clear-eyed enough to understand that teenagers, up to and including its own blushing heroine, sure can act like clueless jerks while they’re figuring out how to wield their newfound powers.
It’s a bit of a bummer, then, that it’s wrapped up in a love story that’s not nearly so convincing, rooted in connections that aren’t so much felt as explained thoroughly in voiceover. While not clumsy enough to sink The Summer I Turned Pretty entirely, they do keep the series from soaring as high as it otherwise might.
The Summer I Turned Pretty
The Bottom Line
A solid coming-of-ager wrapped in a not-so-good romance.
Airdate: Friday, June 17 (Amazon)
Cast: Lola Tung, Jackie Chung, Rachel Blanchard, Christopher Briney, Gavin Casalegno, Sean Kaufman, Alfredo Narciso, Minnie Mills, Colin Ferguson, Tom Everett Scott
Creator: Jenny Han
Adapted by Jenny Han (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) from her own novel, the show begins with Isabel (Lola Tung) — “Belly” to her loved ones — preparing to spend the summer of her 16th birthday exactly as she has the last 15: at Cousins Beach with her mom Laurel (Jackie Chung), her big brother Steven (Sean Kaufman), her mom’s best friend Susannah (Rachel Blanchard) and Susannah’s handsome teenage sons Conrad (Christopher Briney) and Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno). Susannah’s beach house is a sacred place for Belly, who regards it as more a home than even her literal home, not least because nothing ever seems to change there.
Except that something has this year, and it’s right there in the title. Tung is a real find as the newly beautiful Belly, whose shy smile and uncertain posture indicate that she hasn’t completely left behind the gawky kid she used to be — and that she’s yet to figure out what kind of woman she’s blossoming into. “This isn’t you,” she keeps hearing from the people who’ve cared about her all her life, from her mom to Conrad to her best friend Taylor (Rain Spencer). What none of them are willing to understand is that trying out things that didn’t used to be her, from deb balls to illicit beach parties, is her way of finding out what actually is her now.
The Summer I Turned Pretty gets it, though. And it gets why everyone else seems to be having such a hard time this summer, too. Though Belly is our protagonist, the drama also makes time for characters like Susannah and Laurel to wrestle with their own issues, divorced from whatever petty jealousies or grudges are occupying their kids. If part of growing up for Belly is getting to feel like the main character in her own story for the first time, a late-season revelation serves as a heartbreaking reminder that so, too, is learning that everyone else is the main character in their own.
Until then, the season’s seven hourlong chapters grant Belly plenty of space to navigate her changing relationships and evolving sense of self, with the all the heady emotions it entails. Han’s writing is complemented by a soundtrack stuffed with smash-hit singles that match the onscreen action in sometimes extremely literal fashion — i.e., Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” playing as the characters attend a party full of super rich kids. It might be obnoxious, if not for the fact that there is nothing more relatably teenage than listening to Olivia Rodrigo or Ariana Grande on repeat, marveling at how closely their lyrics mirror one’s inner turmoil.
Alas, not even the best of Taylor Swift’s songbook can make up for what the show’s romances lack in chemistry. The Summer I Turned Pretty hinges on basically every boy falling in love with Belly, which admittedly makes for a delicious bit of wish fulfillment. Particularly since the series casts young actors who actually look like high school crush material: Casalegno’s Jeremiah is all exuberant boy-ness and David Iacono’s Cam all endearing nerdiness, while Briney’s Conrad is defined by a hot-and-cold moodiness that my adult self finds incredibly annoying, but that my much younger self would have swooned over. However, the plot also traps all the teenage characters besides Belly in a bizarre holding pattern; they’re unable to work toward any happily-ever-afters of their own until she’s done reveling in the ecstatic torment of having too many boyfriends to choose from.
Worse, the series struggles to muster up much chemistry between any of its ships. The Summer I Turned Pretty deserves credit for emphasizing how friendship can be as essential to a good life as romance. But in trying to delineate between the comforts of friendship and the fire of romance, the series ends up doing a far better job of selling the former than the latter. Susannah and Laurel, Belly and Taylor, Jeremiah and Steven — these are the pairings, rooted in shared laughs, rich history and deep mutual understanding, that feel like they could bloom into real romance with a well-timed kiss. By contrast, Belly’s supposedly years-long crush on Conrad is difficult to invest in when so much of their time onscreen is spent awkwardly dancing around each other, and so little of it enjoying each other’s company.
It’s not an insurmountable flaw. The finale braids together the series’ many narrative throughlines with enough tearjerking emotion to earn the already-greenlit second season — though it’s telling that even then, the most affecting moments emerge from the family units and friendships and not from the ostensible couplings.
Here’s hoping The Summer I Turned Pretty takes a page from Belly’s own playbook and lets itself figure out what sort of story it truly wants to be, instead of boxing itself into the romances dictated by its source material.