‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ is sincere, sun-soaked look at family, girlhood

photo of the summer i turned pretty show
Amazon Studios/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Nothing reflects summer escape quite like the ocean waves, kissing the sand while the sun glistens overhead. As the water rises and falls, crashes and recedes, the shorebreak also represents an eternal flux — the fluidity of time’s continual passing and flowing.

In the series adaptation of “The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han, Belly Conklin (Lola Tung) enters this space of earnest escape and constant change, bridging new relationships amid the coastal backdrop of Cousins Beach. From the title to the central plotline, the series is quintessentially young adult, but between the wistful glances and messy love triangles comes a heartfelt story of family and self, making “The Summer I Turned Pretty” an enjoyable watch for viewers of all ages.

This may be Tung’s first on-screen role, but beneath the perennial sunshine, she beams as 16-year-old Belly, capturing the protagonist in all her awkward, endearing charm. Flowing through the series like a gentle current, her narration is comforting and clear — the perfect complement to Han’s breezy prose. Radiant and real, Tung sparks natural chemistry with her castmates, imbuing authenticity into every longing glance and witty encounter.

“The Summer I Turned Pretty” does not force the love triangle between Belly and the Fishers; rather, it eases into it, allowing the complex web of emotions to arise naturally. Though Conrad (Christopher Briney) first comes across as distant and illegible, viewers understand Belly’s attraction to him through sentimental flashbacks and stolen moments. As the series progresses, the source of Conrad’s disquietude slowly unravels, lending the brooding bad boy an intricacy that only adds to his appeal.

Conrad’s brother Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno), on the other hand, evokes an irresistible amiability and draws watchers in from the very beginning. Though his relationship with Belly begins as friendly, it organically blossoms into much more, shaking up her feelings and offsetting the sometimes-cold interactions between her and Conrad. Sharing an unmistakable fraternal bond, Briney and Casalegno wonderfully balance one another as characters. 

However, the relationship that shines most throughout the series is that between mothers. As Laurel (Jackie Chung) and Susannah (Rachel Blanchard) get high by the pool and unwind on yellow lounge chairs, they share an unwavering bond, even as the lives they built slowly crumble apart. When their hearts break, the watchers’ shatter. Their struggles in love and life add an intergenerational dimension to the show’s central plotline, further elevating the emotional stakes.

Along with impressive performances comes an equally impressive soundtrack, seamlessly mirroring every shift in mood. Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag” plays during Belly’s first makeout session at the drive-in, while Phoebe Bridgers’s “Funeral” accompanies a particularly emotive scene. Through it all, Taylor Swift remains ubiquitous, her songs both new and old guiding Belly through her journey. Debuting Swift’s tender re-recording of “This Love,” the series reflects the 1989 track in all its splendor, embracing love through all the good and the bad.

While “The Summer I Turned Pretty” may keep watchers on the edge of their seats wondering if Belly will choose Conrad or Jeremiah, it shimmers with much more. The series is about losing and finding oneself — about grasping onto transient moments before they slip away like sand through an hourglass.

Toward the end of the show, Susannah’s paintings of the central characters, which she has worked on since the first episode, are finally revealed. Like Lily Briscoe in “To the Lighthouse,” she looks for shape amid “the eternal passing and flowing”; as the summer fades away, she attempts to create something that lasts.

The idea of “turning pretty” may seem superficial and trite — the stuff of sappy young adult fiction. But in the series adaptation of “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” Han presents a beautiful portrait of finding oneself, approaching the highs and lows of young love with sincerity and care.

Lauren Harvey is the deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].