I went into the Summer of Being Beautiful thinking I knew how it would go. I hadn’t read Jenny Han’s books, but I gleaned enough information from the description to guess what Prime Video’s summer rom-com for teens would offer: a young, beautiful cast, gorgeous scenery, and a strong beach-feeling breeze that will make you long for the ocean’s salty waters.
I shouldn’t have been so modest. Of course, you can guess the final destination, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the journey. The secret to this success shouldn’t be remarkable, but it’s something that’s surprisingly difficult in teen shows: The Creators to know their main audience is teenage girls. And to achieve them, they use every tool in their arsenal, including writing, casting and music selection.
The Summer I Turned Pretty, or TSITP, proves that entertainers don’t need to reinvent the wheel to attract audiences. Teenage girls are, rightly, some of the most discerning audiences, and they deserve shows that don’t take their audience for granted. And I’m happy to say that thanks to all their efforts, TSITP is one of the best teenage novels out there.
“This summer will be different”
The seven-episode season follows 16-year-old Isabel “Belly” Conkley’s many romantic relationships during her summer vacation in the fictional beach town of Cousins. Belly (Lola Tung) remembers as long as she was in love with Conrad Fisher (Christopher Briney), but Conrad always sees her as a little sister. Conrad’s younger brother Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno) is also in love with Belly. Add a lot of alcohol and a lot of bad communication to the party every episode and you have a classic love triangle teenage drama.
But it’s not that dramatic. One of the things that TSITP show creator Jenny Han does really well is show restraint when it comes to the end-of-the-world relationship framework that is so common in teen shows. Romantic relationships are the main focus of the show, but when a relationship ends or begins, the characters simply move on. Maybe it’s because it just is so many Relationships need to be understood in short series, but the message that life goes on after a relationship ends is especially important for younger viewers.
That’s not the only thing that separates this show from its clichéd contemporaries. The belly is surprisingly real, a self-aware hero. She’s not always as smooth as she is in her painfully-awkward-to-watch relationship with Cam, but her optimism and charm come across as genuine and endearing rather than irritating. As the lead, Tung brings an endearing innocence to her heartfelt performance that still makes you root for Belly’s team despite some truly eye-opening decisions Belly has made throughout the season.
Another important note on how TSITP differs from other teen shows: The cast is age appropriate, or at least as close as possible. I sincerely thank the casting directors of TSITP for not casting 30-year-olds as teenagers. 19-year-old Tung actually looks like a teenager, as do all the other youngsters in the role. It might seem like a small thing, but having people who are teenagers (or a few years older) makes the show more believable.
Summer Snow was not the main character
Although the changes are mostly for the better, people who have read the books are sure to have some surprises.
Fans of the books, which were originally told solely from Belly’s point of view, may be pleasantly surprised to see the show expand beyond just Belly’s connections. It touches on both families’ fractured parental relationships, the pairing of Stephen and his fashionista girlfriend Shayla, and the show’s true love story: Laurel and Susannah’s decades-long friendship.
But there are plenty of themes that the show briefly touches on but doesn’t explore beyond a scene or two: racism at Stephen’s job at Cousins’ country club, the financial disparity and tension between the Conklins and the Fishers, Jer’s fluid sexuality. All of this deeply affects the characters and the situations they find themselves in throughout the show, but they aren’t given enough time to fully explore them. For viewers who haven’t read the books, this may be disappointing.
Even as season two revisits these themes, Belly’s voiceovers continually bring the viewer back to Belly’s point of view. Voiceovers consistently disrupt the flow of a scene and rarely add new information or clearer context that the audience might not otherwise have access to.
In future seasons, it would be great if the series cuts all the voices or passes the microphone to other characters, focusing on the person who is the main character of the episode’s storyline.
Going further and treating these other storylines as equal value to Belly’s romantic relationships would make the show a richer, more nuanced watch.
Yay I played the TSITP soundtrack
I don’t know how much the soundtrack budget was. All I know is that it was money well spent. Olivia Rodrigo, Lizzo, Phoebe Bridgers, Ariana Grande, Tyler the Creator, Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish support the show’s highlights. Not to mention the best song placement of all time: “The Way I Loved You (Taylor’s Version)” by Taylor Swift in the finale episode. My poor Swiftie was heartbroken.
Aside from the thematic importance of the songs — Olivia Rodrigo’s brutality during a fight scene, for example — the choice of music shows that the show’s production team clearly understands its young, female target audience. These are songs and artists that many teenage girls actually listen to straight from their phones and playlists. The choice of music enhanced many scenes as it was able to add a deeper emotional level. There were a few moments where I thought, “Yeah, I’d listen to this after something like that happened to me.”
The soundtrack also sparked a lot of chatter online, including Lizzo’s amazing four-part TikTok reaction series. In addition to releasing the series’ official playlist, Amazon Prime also gave the actors free reign and created character-specific playlists filled with songs they used to get into character and just some of their favorite songs. Tung’s Belly playlist is particularly good.
Chris Briney summer: Outstanding performance
One of the notable plays is Christopher Briney’s Conrad. Conrad could have easily fit the cliché of just a brooding, bad-boy-turned-good guy, but even in the first episode, there’s more to Conrad’s character than meets the eye. While the writing already defies Conrad’s expectations, Briney’s performance brings a whole new layer of emotional depth and nuance. Watching Briney’s Conrad is a masterclass in the elusive vulnerability of teenage boys.
Briney’s brilliance lies in his ability to subtly portray all the conflicting paths and roles that Conrad wants to occupy: the older brother who holds the family together, the friend of local author Cleveland Castillo, and the stubborn teenage boy who can’t quite decide how he feels. Belly. It’s a fine line to walk, but Briney manages to reveal just enough to keep the audience interested and intrigued by Conrad’s not-so-thinking behavior. Briney’s performance is even more impressive when you go back and rewatch the show knowing what Conrad was up to.
Briney’s performance de resistance occurs in episode 6. After watching Briney deftly hide and deflect Conrad’s emotions throughout the series, she handles this devastating moment with a recklessness that’s both hard to watch and impossible to get away from — you finally see how all of Conrad’s pieces come together. It’s a beautiful, sensitive scene, and one where Briney shines.
Summer of romantic book-to-screen adaptations
In the past few years, there have been many romantic movies and shows that have made a comeback by popular demand, including Sarah Dessen’s., Sally Thorne’s The Hate Game , Jenny Han’s first book-to-screen adaptation, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before , and The Kissing Booth , based on a book originally published on Wattpad. TSITP now tops them all.
To be fair, some of these adaptations are intended for a slightly older audience because of the source material. But many of these shows and movies are aimed at teenage girls, and often the people behind these shows have no idea who these girls are, what they want, or how to best represent them.
Too often, teenage girls are belittled or ridiculed for the things they like, as if their interests are just the latest fad, not worthy of the time or energy needed to truly understand them. It would be easy for TSITP to fall back on stereotypes, add a few cultural references and call it a day. It’s even harder to create a female lead who makes questionable decisions, struggles in her friendships, and doesn’t live and die with her current love interest, because none of these things relate to the typical TV young girl. But these are all things that belong to Belly. And they make him and the series more interesting because he appears real.
In an oversaturated genre, I Got Beautiful Over Summer shows that creators not only understand teenage girls, but treat them as whole people with complex feelings, relationships, and goals. This sets the series apart at its best. I can’t wait to be surprised again in season 2 with a strong foundation built in season 1 and plenty of themes left to explore.
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