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.
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.
There is a lot of pressure on a sophomore project to live up to the hype of its predecessor. (Look no further than just about every headline declaring that Conversations With Friends dropped the Normal People torch.) The Summer I Turned Pretty is the second Jenny Han adaptation after To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (and its sequels) launched a million Noah Centineo thirst tweets in 2018. No matter that it’s in a different format (movie vs. TV series) or on a different streamer (Netflix vs. Prime Video): To All The Boys set the bar by which The Summer I Turned Pretty will be measured.
Thankfully, it measures up quite well. Han is a co-showrunner and executive producer on the series, and it shows: The characters feel lived in, with warm chemistries and rich histories that suggest they are well known by their creator. Isabel Conklin (Lola Tung), affectionately and perhaps inconceivably referred to as “Belly” by everyone in her life, has spent every summer on Cousins Beach with her mother Laurel (Jackie Chung), brother Steven (Sean Kaufman), mom’s best friend Susannah (Rachel Blanchard), and her two boys, Conrad and Jeremiah (Christopher Briney and Gavin Casalegno). On the cusp of 16, Belly returns to Susannah’s gorgeous beach house with her family, hoping that this summer, the boys will finally stop seeing her as that little kid they grew up with.
After years of being approached by producers and writers eager to adapt The Summer I Turned Pretty, Jenny Han was resolved only to move forward with the project if she could adapt the book herself.
"There had been interest over the years," she tells PEOPLE. "But I always said no, and now I think it's because I actually really wanted to be able to do it myself — and to do it the way that I envisioned it."
After serving as executive producer for the second and third installments of Netflix's To All the Boys series based on her bestselling book trilogy, Han says she learned a lot about the adaptation process. With that knowledge, she was certain she wanted Summer to be at TV series that she could shape.
"I think that TV writing is more novelistic," she says. "Being able to spend time with the characters and see the growth over seven episodes, I think you just get to know them so much better."
Television also favors the writer, who "holds the story in their hands the whole way through," she says. Han, 41, is particularly hands-on in the Prime Video series, serving not only as writer but creator, co-showrunner and executive producer.
The Summer I Turned Pretty follows Isabel "Belly" Conklin (Lola Tung) over the course of a summer in Cousins Beach spent with her older brother, Steven (Sean Kaufman), and the Fisher boys, Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno) and Conrad (Christopher Briney). The multigenerational drama sees Belly navigating a summer of firsts. Her first love, Conrad, seems to start to really see her this summer, while the younger Jeremiah has always seen her.
All the while, Belly's mother Laurel (Jackie Chung) and the Fisher brothers' mom Susannah (Rachel Blanchard) spend the summer navigating their own major life changes.
While the book was told from Belly's point of view, the show follows each of the characters with more depth — including Laurel and Susannah, whose lives weren't exactly at the top of Belly's mind in the books.
"I was really interested in seeing women at different points in their lives, coming of age," Han tells PEOPLE. "Belly is coming of age, and so is Laurel — coming out of a divorce, and she's about to be at a big emotional crossroads where her life is changing in really big ways."