Park-Conklin Family Discuss Grief and Imperfections in ‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’

Photo Credit: Jackie Cheung

In recent years, Asian representation in Western media has grown substantially, especially when it comes to fantastical concepts. While those types of films and shows have helped the AAPI communities take big strides in terms of Western success and visibility, some of these characters are unrelatable, simply in nature. They have super powers or have mastery of martial arts; they’re unrealistic. This disconnect is what makes projects such as Prime Video’s The Summer I Turned Pretty that much more important. The rom-com features an ordinary, suburban Asian American family who goes through the common trials and tribulations of life, alongside a coming-of-age and love story.

Reprising their roles as the Park-Conklin family in season two of the show, Lola Tung (main character Belly), Sean Kaufman (Belly’s older brother Steven), and Jackie Chung (Belly and Steven’s mom Laurel) agree that there’s something extra wonderful about being able to portray an average Asian American family. For Lola, this series was her first acting job, making it all the more meaningful. “It’s so cool just to be surrounded by incredible Asian American actors like [Jackie Chung and Sean Kaufman, who are] sitting next to me, and we get such lovely messages from fans who are just so happy and grateful to see this family on screen. That means the world to me, that [our work] means something to other people.” To Jackie, the role is one that brings to life something relatable to any regular viewer. “It’s really special. It’s wonderful to see Asian American families with superpowers, yes, but how lovely that we get to see the gamut of families, and that we can have one that is just going through the things that families go through, like challenges, love, and heartbreak. Our lives are infused with that aspect of ourselves, that we are Asian American, but it’s not the entire driving force of our existence. It’s always a part of us, but it’s not a constant thing that we’re thinking about.” Much like his character Steven, Sean chimes in with a bout of unserious comedic relief: “I’m sure we’d all like to be Michelle Yeoh, though.”

For Belly, Steven, and Laurel, the show’s second season revolves heavily around their journey of grief as they are faced with the aftermath of Susannah’s death. Belly and Steven have lost someone they’ve regarded as a parental figure, and for Laurel, she’s lost her longtime best friend and sister. While season one focused on the various types of love people can come across in their life, such as familial love, friendships, and romantic relationships, the audience gets a glimpse into a different side of their favorite characters this time, as they each learn how to deal with the complexity of grief. “After my grandparents passed away, my mom always seemed so stoic and strong for me and my sister. She was an only child whose parents both passed away in the same year, but I don’t remember seeing her cry or break down about it,” starts Lola, comparing her relationship with her mom to that of her character and her onscreen mother. “It was interesting because that’s sort of like a parallel to Laurel and Belly’s relationship in the show, and how Laurel is trying to be so strong for her kids.” Thinking about her approach to accurately portraying the confusion and vulnerability behind grief, Lola believes it was something that came naturally. “There was a little bit of subconscious thought [because] I could relate to it. I’m a really emotional person, and as much as I try to be strong, it’ll always come out somehow.”

Adding on to Lola’s sentiment, Jackie agrees that the grieving process is one that’s different for each individual, and for her character in particular, it was one that took her all season to figure out. “It’s exactly what [Lola] said. Laurel is just trying to keep her bearings, to be there for her family, and also be there for Susannah. She’s not processing [her emotions] at all, and it’s putting a strain on her relationship with her kids, and with herself. I think that’s really the arc of Laurel’s journey this season.” It’s also important to note the differences between first generation immigrants and second generation young adults who were born and raised in Western culture. “Especially when it comes to emotional vulnerability, I also think my mom is the same way [as Lola’s mom and as our on-screen mom Laurel],” says Sean, thinking about his childhood and his experiences growing up. “She was taught for so many years that [emotions were] not a thing you do, and we’ve kind of tried to break that [for her]. I’ve had the immense privilege of growing up in America and having my father’s perspective on it. He always taught me that you can show emotion, and you can do this or that. I think something that’s beautiful about this show is that you’re able to see each character when they do break down and when they do eventually get to that point. Hopefully, for the audience watching, it can show them that it’s okay to reach that point emotionally.”

Aside from having the tendency to hide away emotions and retreat from the world, grief also often leads people to make careless mistakes. Each of the main characters in this season make their fair share of bad choices influenced by impulsive and negative thoughts, yet these flaws are just another piece of their humanity. “Everybody does it. Making a mistake is the most human part of life, and the important thing about it is how you pick yourself up from it, and learning not to dwell on it,” starts Sean. For Laurel, having to accept her mistakes is an extra obstacle as an adult, and as a parent. “I feel like you don’t see that often in parents, that they make mistakes and don’t actually know what they’re doing. Laurel is still figuring out her relationships and her career, and she doesn’t have all the answers, but she’s doing her best for herself and her family to move forward,” shares Jackie. For Lola, The Summer I Turned Pretty also offers a fresh perspective on things. “A lot of people have said to us, like, ‘I can really see things from a younger perspective now, like from how my daughter would view this or things like that. Thinking about Belly and Laurel’s relationship and Steven and Laurel’s relationship, I can see things from the adult perspective a little more now, especially as I become an adult myself.”

Wrapping up her thoughts on the show and all that it’s taught her, Lola finishes up by reminiscing on the growth their characters have seen in this season. “It’s so cool to just be able to see it from both perspectives, and see everyone grow from their grief and grow from their mistakes. We all pick ourselves back up again, and as Sean said, it’s a good life lesson.”

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