There’s a particular teenage feeling of promise to summer for me. School is out, the sun is beating, and the space between June and September seems big enough to live a lifetime in. Even for someone staunchly past teenhood, the tickle of summertime is exciting, ripe for romance and self-transformation– and these are the kinds of shows and movies I find myself ready to devour. So, beyond the more obvious Elios and Olivers and Swayzes and Babys, these are the teen romance stories that I’ll be watching this summer over the roar of the fan in my sticky, non-air conditioned apartment.
Sixteen-year-old Cyd visits her aunt, a renowned author, in Chicago for the summer. There, she goes on a journey of self-discovery and romantic exploration, finding love–or something more ineffable–with a barista named Katie. It’s an intimate and tender film set in the high noons of midwest heat, and effortlessly plays between the worlds of intellectual bookishness and languid sexuality. Princess Cyd is a teen romance that staunchly eschews stereotypes in favor of something more ambiguous and impressionistic.
Stream Princess Cyd on Tubi.
West Side Story (2021)
Set in a sultry New York City summer in the 1950s, the classic about rival gangs who stand in the way of love between two smitten teens: Maria, a Puerto Rican girl, and Tony, a white boy got an Oscar winning update in 2021. “Where Spielberg really shines is making everything seem epic,” writes the Watercooler’s Jerry Barmash. “The man behind Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, just to name a few, takes the opportunity to create a visual spectacle.”
The 1961 film was shot primarily on a Hollywood backlot and looks like it. The new version takes the action directly to the streets. Spielberg closed down several East Harlem blocks and his talent for every small detail is evident from street signage to subways. “America” was always one of the most fun numbers from the original, and still doesn’t disappoint, this time going from rooftop to blacktop. Even the interior sets—like the dance at the gym, another memorable number—look fresh and colorful.
Stream West Side Story on Disney+.
The Story: During her last months before starting college, on a summer night in Harlem, 17-year-old poet Ayanna meets up-and-coming music producer Isaiah, and a rapturous, life-changing romance begins.
“Against Hudson River sunsets and seductive, sequestered moments in a sound studio, the two bond over songwriting and poetry, and soon find themselves surrendering to an all-consuming relationship,” writes the Watercooler’s Melissa Roth.
“It’s all new to Ayanna, who loses her inhibitions—sexually, emotionally, and creatively, as her poems begin to finally flow freely. She doesn’t realize she’s in love until she starts to hurt. ”
The provocative, steamy, and heart-wrenching story of a first love delivers a breakout performance, sharp writing, “and a visceral feeling of being dropped straight into a hot summer night in Harlem, young and heady with infatuation and possibility.”
The Story: Set on the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, a close-knit group of high schoolers from the wrong side of the tracks called the ‘Pogues’ set out to find their ringleader’s missing father. In the process, they stumble across a treasure map that unearths a long-buried secret.
The Watercooler’s Tywan Wade recommends it as “a transporting series with a flurry of romance and treasure hunts, Outer Banks has hooked audiences and critics with its cheesy-good fun. With similarities drawn to the shirtless sex appeal and bombastic personalities of Netflix’s Too Hot To Handle, this scripted sister series is a somewhat mindless escape with just enough suspense.”
Stream Outer Banks on Netflix.
All Over Me
At the beginning of summer in Hell’s Kitchen, a thirteen-year-old musician named Claude falls in love with her best friend, Ellen, who is slipping into a dangerous world of drugs, street violence, and older men. A film that deserves to be excavated from the dust of time and obscurity–it’s a boots-on-the-ground portrait of the “Riot grrrl” subculture of the 90s as well as a moving and original coming-of-age story. It’s intuitive and gripping, with impressive emotional performances from its young actors. Fans of The L Word will enjoy a young, pink-haired Leisha Hailey (who played Alice) as Claude’s punk muse.
Stream All Over Me on YouTube.
Conversations With Friends
Less teen and more early 20s, but with plenty of European sun to go around, the series adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel offers the perfect amount of stirring summer yearning.
“After performing on a spoken word stage, two young Dublin women get invited into the lives of a successful and glamorous married couple, and all of their relationships begin to get a lot more complicated, raising questions about just how ‘finite’ and defined romantic love can be. […] Like the adaptation of Normal People, the characters in Conversations can be riveting and relatable, simmering with conflicted emotions, deep, unspoken longing, and, of course, lust. The sex scenes are as artful and intimate as they are believable, and the vast majority of them include a sultry, vulnerable Joe Alwyn.” – Watercooler Staff. Stream Conversations With Friends on Hulu.
Another movie that feels teen-coded despite its recent college grad protagonist, Adventureland basks in the misfit culture within 1980s suburbia. James’ (Jesse Eisenberg) plans to backpack Europe are foiled by lack of funds – so he must suit up for a soul-sucking job at the local amusement park. The summer delivers far more than the bleakness it seems to promise, though, as he soon falls for his cool-girl coworker Em (Kristen Stewart). A summer romance for the outsider set, full of quirky characters and a fun period-appropriate soundtrack.
Stream Adventureland on YouTube.
The Story: The binge-watch version of a summer beach read — one loosely based on the bestselling Italian novels by Federico Moccia — Summertime follows five friends on the cusp of adulthood through their summer of romance, affairs, and freedom in a rich-hued seaside resort on the Adriatic sea.
The Watercooler’s staff picked this one two years back: “It takes you to this place: Italy’s Adriatic Riviera, to a vibrant village with lapping indigo waves, vespas, dance parties that play Italian classics, and striking, scantily clad people having fun.
It takes you to this time of life: just before leaving home, the first tastes of freedom, the first loves.
It may be soapy and full of some awkward cliches, and the dubbed English can be cringe-y, neutering some of the transporting appeal of its Italian setting and performers. But this is meant to be a summer escape watch, one with appealing leads and cinematography aimed at stimulating all of your senses.”