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Arts and Entertainment

Review: ‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ brings inclusive cast and complex themes to the screen

“The Summer I Turned Pretty” is a classic rom-com coming-of-age story that explores the teenage experience through a modern lens.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/sydneygaw/" target="_self">Sydney Gaw</a>

Sydney Gaw

June 30, 2022
“To All the Boys” author and producer Jenny Han first announced plans for the TV adaptation of her second YA series, “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” in February 2021. Prior to the series’ debut on June 17, Han revealed that the show was already confirmed for a second season.

“The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han. (Amazon)

“The Summer I Turned Pretty” is based on Han’s original trilogy, which includes sequels “It’s Not Summer Without You” and “We’ll Always Have Summer,” published in 2010 and 2011 respectively. The first novel was recently adapted as a seven-episode Amazon Prime Video series starring Lola Tung (Belly Conklin), Christopher Briney (Conrad Fisher), Gavin Casalegno (Jeremiah Fisher) and Sean Kaufman (Steven Conklin).

“The Summer I Turned Pretty” is a classic rom-com coming-of-age story that explores the teenage experience through a modern lens. It is a story of first love, first heartbreak, summer romance and the enduring power of friendship.

The show chronicles the Conklins’ annual trip to the fictional beach town of Cousins, where Belly looks forward to spending the summer with her mother’s best friend, Susannah (Rachel Blanchard), and her sons Conrad and Jeremiah. Up until now, Belly has always been treated like a little sister to the boys and has never been one to attend late-night parties or go on dates. 

However, this summer is different. As the title hints, Belly gains a new sense of visibility among other people her age, specifically the boys. She realizes this might be the year her childhood crush, Conrad Fisher, finally sees her as someone more than a sister.

In between figuring out her feelings, Belly goes on her first date with a boy from her hometown, relives old family traditions and earns invitations to some of the wildest parties. Viewers get to watch as Belly navigates newly defined relationships and her evolving sense of self.

Although the series adaptation does an excellent job of incorporating the most memorable scenes from the novel, there were many added pieces in the show. When adapting the story for the screen, Han took liberties with each character’s role in the story, as well as with casting, and viewers are given a glimpse into more complex subplots that focus on characters like Laurel (Jackie Chung) and Susannah, whose roles in the books were much smaller.

S1 EPISODE 7: Lola Tung as Belly at the deb ball. (Amazon Prime Video)

One of the biggest additions to the storyline was the debutante ball that Belly participates in. From dance lessons to dress shopping to raising money for charity, viewers get to follow along as Belly immerses herself into the socialite life amongst Cousins’ wealthiest. Though the characters acknowledge the archaism rooted in such a tradition, it ties in well with the coming-of-age part of Belly’s experience.

“As I was adapting Summer, I was thinking a lot about visual representations of coming of age and how many different cultures celebrate that moment, like a quinceañera or a coming-out ball or a bat mitzvah,” Han said in an interview with TIME. “To me, [the setting] being this sort of wealthy world, it felt like a great opportunity to bring that to life.”

And not only does the deb ball create a purpose for some of the series’ most extravagant scenes, but it also allows Han to convey an impactful message about beauty and external validation. In one particular scene, Belly said: “Girls aren’t supposed to know if we’re pretty or not. We’re supposed to wait for other people to tell us before we’re allowed to feel it about ourselves…But isn’t that b—? Because we’re all beautiful in our own ways.”

Considering the show’s title, it is no surprise that a lot of the plot follows Belly’s struggle to fit into her society’s expectations of beauty. Acknowledging this reality makes the story so much more relatable for young girls.

“I was wanting to communicate that you should not feel embarrassed about taking pride in your beauty inside and out,” Han told NPR. “I think especially for teenage girls, it’s a hard moment because you are being viewed differently as you get older and you’re going through puberty, and there is this sort of newfound attention that can feel exciting and thrilling, but also it can feel scary at the same time.”

Building on this message of empowerment and internal validation, Han and her co-showrunners decided to focus on Belly’s interpersonal relationships and the importance of female friendship. We find this in the support system of debutantes that Belly befriends despite a tumultuous introduction, as well as in Laurel and Susannah, who exemplify the unconditional love and loyalty of best friends.

Belly even forms a complicated friendship with Conrad’s current girlfriend, Nicole. While Nicole, more often referred to as “Red Sox girl” in the book, is initially wary of Belly’s relationship with Conrad, the two girls develop a sisterly bond when it comes to prepping for the deb ball. Nicole even throws an elaborate party for Belly’s 16th birthday in an effort to make sure that Belly feels accepted.

S1 EPISODE 1: Belly and Jeremiah Fisher (Gavin Casalegno) at Cousins beach. (Amazon Prime Video)

Han successfully wove these elements of friendship into the core of the plot: romance. At the very center of it all is Belly’s residual feelings for Conrad. Although she admits she will always consider Conrad her first love, Belly doesn’t let Conrad’s opinion of her keep her from exploring all the possible options — a plan that doesn’t quite sit well with viewers, myself included.

It was hard to watch Belly date her first boyfriend, Cameron (David Iacono), and continue to lead him on until she ultimately decides her feelings for Conrad are too strong and decides to tell Cam during a beach picnic date he planned for them. That very same night, Belly kisses Jeremiah in their backyard pool, initiating an almost-romance with the younger Fisher brother that further convolutes Belly’s feelings for Conrad.

Though all three of Belly’s relationships with the boys have been expanded upon from the novel, the strong focus on each one provides the audience with a better understanding of each character.

In addition to Belly’s romantic rendezvous, she also spends a lot of the summer with her fellow debutante friends. Party-hopping from beach bonfires to expensive yachts, Belly gets a taste of what the boys have been doing all along. Only this time, it’s with her own group of girls. These circumstances provide for a healthy dose of drama (that ultimately gets resolved).

Looking back on the season, what makes these scenes enjoyable is the sense of idealism. For many young people, it is easy to admire and even want the lifestyle that the Conklins and Fishers partake in. Though unrealistic at times, the story uses the more fantastical plot points to make the series worth watching. 

For me, the most impractical part was how Belly was able to manage such a busy social calendar during the summer. Needless to say, I, like many other YA readers, thoroughly enjoyed watching Belly experience the stereotypical high-schooler life — a life I would never dream of having myself but is nonetheless fun to watch.

The entire premise of the series, along with the immaculate summertime vibes and Taylor Swift-Esque soundtrack, makes the show extremely entertaining, even for those who have not read the books.

More than anything, though, the diverse and inclusive cast of characters elevated the viewer experience for me. Although diversity in mainstream media is still a prevalent issue in our society, Han’s casting choices in “The Summer I Turned Pretty” prove that character castings can deviate from the original outline and still contribute to an accurate portrayal of the plot.

Being able to watch an Asian American actress lead the series in a role that isn’t chiefly defined by the character’s race or ethnicity allows other young girls to see themselves in the main character of a relatively universal experience. While most of the main characters were alluded to be white in the novel, Han took this opportunity, 13 years later, to enlarge the scope of the narrative.

“When I was approaching the adaptation, I wanted to really reflect the moment that we’re living in. And I think the diversity of characters is a piece of that, so it felt like a really great opportunity to showcase different kinds of talent,” Han shared in an interview with CinemaBlend. “We get to have like an Asian American family on the show. And then, we also have a new character Cleveland, who is Filipino…I think it feels really natural to the show, to the characters and the story.”

The script even touches on the subtle racism within the fictional town of Cousins and humors the societal bias against Asian American artists who don’t capitalize on their identity as a person of color. During one episode, Laurel and fellow writer Cleveland Castillo (Alfred Narciso) discuss the difficulty of selling books that don’t highlight their struggles as a minority. In another scene, which takes place at the country club where Steven and Jeremiah work, Steven is subjected to racist comments made by some of the patrons, and afterward, he considers how to respond to such remarks.

“The Summer I Turned Pretty” is a perfect example of how written works can be transformed to remain in the contemporary genre. Touching on social issues was not an obligation, but the effort to make the series inclusive enhanced the original plot. The producers’ decision to cast an Asian American actress as the lead was largely due to the success of Han’s previous film adaptation, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” which set the precedent for a person of color to star in a modern rom-com movie.

In a day and age when mainstream media and television can have a lasting impact on viewers, especially the teenage audience, it is crucial that writers and directors continue to produce films that accurately represent their audiences. While watching “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” I found that the cast really enriched the whole experience. 

As the series progresses, my hope is that Han will continue to build upon her original writing and expand the plotlines at a reasonable pace. After finishing the last episode, I can’t wait to see what happens next. 

Until the next season, fans are left to decide: Team Jeremiah or team Conrad?

Belly and the Fisher boys at Cousins. (Amazon Prime Video)