Spoiler-free series review on Amazon Studios’ The Summer I Turned Pretty
Showrunners: Jenny Han and Gabrielle Stanton
Starring: Lola Tung, Jackie Chung, Rachel Blanchard, Christopher Briney, Gavin Casalegno, and Sean Kaufman
Executive Producers: Jenny Han, Gabrielle Stanton, Karen Rosenfelt, Hope Hartman, Mads Hansen and Nne Ebong
How & when to watch: Prime Video on June 17, 2022
Young adult (YA) novels turned movies or television shows have always been a part of our popular culture. The latest, produced by Amazon Studios, is the first of Jenny Han’s trilogy The Summer I Turned Pretty. As with most TV series catered to the young adult crowd, the story is a coming-of-age tale centered on change, first love, and personal growth. While following the typical formula for stories of this kind, showrunners Jenny Han and Gabrielle Stanton deliver a character-driven, emotionally compelling narrative that makes up for its stereotypical structure.
The series lead, Lola Tung, plays Belly, a young lady who wishes for a change on the summer of her sixteenth birthday. For years, she, her mom Laurel (Jackie Chung) and brother Steven (Sean Kaufman) have taken summer vacations at the beach house of long-time family friend Susannah (Rachel Blanchard) and her two sons Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno) and Conrad (Christopher Briney). When her new summer experiences begin to threaten her life-long crush on Conrad, Belly must step into her own and decide what’s best for her in a way that no one else can.
Lola Tung gives a breakout performance
In between its formulaic storytelling and differing timeline from the novel of the same name, The Summer I Turned Pretty reveals a beautiful story about friendship, first love, and growth throughout this multigenerational drama. Belly has clearly grown from the last summer, and everyone in her life is sure to make a note of it. But what sets this adaptation apart from other YA shows is that each character grows at their own rates independent of each other, which makes for a fascinating story centered around coming of age.
It may come as no surprise to fans of the original book series how Belly’s character grows and makes her decisions by the season’s end. Showrunners Jenny Han and Gabrielle Stanton make a genuine effort to remind us of the clumsiness of growing up and awkwardness of dating while in teenage years, after all. But throughout this adaptation are surprises that enhance these scenes and the experience. The song/music choices, for example, are perfectly timed to accentuate how a character may be feeling. Often, flashbacks are used to stress a character’s reflection of an important summer moment. These creative details help to amplify every scene and the characters’ emotional responses thereafter.
The show’s star, Lola Tung, gives a breakout performance compelling enough to be invested in every decision she makes and the consequences of them. At times however, it’s hard to imagine why a love triangle exists when some chemistries are lacking with certain screen partners. For me, Rachel Blanchard and Jackie Chung as loving mothers and best friends give the performances of the series. Blanchard plays Susannah with seismic likeability from the moment she makes her first appearance on screen. Chung’s Laurel is the perfect balance opposite Blanchard’s energy. But it is during those smaller family and friendship moments that really offer both women opportunities to shine; and they simply exceed expectations.
Though captivating moments are sprinkled throughout season one of this series, The Summer I Turned Pretty doesn’t always deliver in narrative quality within each episode. Some interactions and relationships are contrived to create conflict for our leads down the road. At times, the existence of such scenes is not the problem. However, they often come abruptly and resolve just as quickly before viewers may be able to wrap their heads around the decisions and reactions of the characters. Luckily for fans of the novel and YA content in general, these hurdles don’t hurt the overall quality of the show.
While The Summer I Turned Pretty is not without its faults, the narrative and its reliance on YA storytelling tropes makes for a reliable and emotionally convincing watching experience. Overall, the show reminds us of the importance of being true to who we are while creating safe spaces for ourselves to learn in the process of growing up. Thanks to the showrunners and creative minds behind each episode’s structure, viewers can expect to be entertained.