Every summer, Belly and her family head to the Fishers’ beach house in Cousins. Every summer is the same … until Belly turns sixteen. Relationships will be tested, painful truths will be revealed, and Belly will be forever changed. It’s a summer of first love, first heartbreak and growing up — it’s the summer she turns pretty.
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.
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.
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.